What follows is a transcript for the podcast HomeGrown Humans - Tim Urban - Viral Content - Hosted by Jamie Wheal
Topics within the interview include the following:
- The Power of Digital Illustration
- Finding Your Authorial Voice
- Long Term Self-Sustaining Tips in the World of Content Creation
- How Tim Became a Curious Polymath
- Why Tim Is a Zealot of Free Speech
- How “Hate Speech” Is Interpreted by Different Groups
- “Idea Lab” - a Free Speech Culture
- The “Cancel” Culture
- Finding Common Ground Between Different Opinions
- How Can We Be Better Humans
- More About Tim
- The Difference Between Patriotism and Nationalism
- How to Love Your Enemy
The Power of Digital Illustration
Jamie Wheal: Tim Urban is the founder of the ever popular Wait But Why series of basically stick figure illustration meets deep dives into eternal and timely topics, as well as the co-founder of ArborBridge educational programming, and renowned for being the first person in the history of TED, the global speakers program, to have his 2016 talk on procrastination actually get to 10 million views within one year. And it now lives in the pantheon of top 10 TED Talks of all time. So in getting to prepare for this time with Tim, I kind of thought I was like, wow, if Joe Rogan and Edward Tufte, who's the sort of father of a graphic illustration, if the two of them got together and had a love child, it might look a little like Tim Urban. So Tim, welcome to Homegrown Humans and fired up to chat.
Tim Urban: Yes, me too. Thanks for having me on.
Jamie Wheal: For sure. So I ended up coming across your work as I imagine many people do, which is sort of accidentally, organically virally. In particular, I remember a few of your, what have now I think become some of the early breakouts of Wait But Why, one on relationships, obviously your one on procrastination, and then the ones on AI and Elon Musk. And at the time I just remember thinking, Oh, thank God, someone is taking the time to break down complex issues and render them in fun, engaging, and accessible ways. It's kind of the instant thing to forward to a friend or a family member that you wanted to get up to speed on something without slamming a thousand pages in their face.
So I definitely want to get into some of the things you're up to most recently and that are top of mind for you, but just for folks that have either just been glancingly familiar with Wait But Why and your body of work, how did you find your way to that as almost a kind of pioneering a new category? I mean, we've got long-form Joe Rogan kind of stuff. And then we've got the realm of instant soundbite, Instagram memes, nine second, 30 second clips, Twitter. So how did you find yourself into this juxtaposition, and I wouldn't imagine you ever self identified as an artist, but you've actually rendered the visual as a key element of what you do and some of your posts are pages and pages long. So what drew you to that? And how did you find that as an incredibly rich niche?
Tim Urban: Yeah, there wasn't some moment when I said, I have a new kind of art form or new kind of article that I think could be great. It wasn't like that. It was like I had an old blog I blogged on for years just as a side thing. Towards the end of it I tried just for fun drawing little stick figure drawing. I'm one of the least talented artists I know. I can't draw anything that looks realistic without tracing, but I was like, Oh, let me draw funny stick figures to try to make this point. And I had a smaller readership on that old blog, but people really liked it. So then the next few posts I did that and that was around the time I stopped writing. I just got busy with other stuff and that blog kind of stopped.
Then a couple of years later, we were starting a new project, Wait But Why, and the goal was to make it more than a small blog and to really try to do something bigger. And I remembered the stick figures on the old blog and so that was actually a fun tool. It went along well with my tone and my writing. It was like it enhanced the post. So that was kind of a no-brainer to bring those into the new blog. And then they didn't start out that long. They started out short. They started out on light topics. At the time I was like, I didn't feel necessarily qualified to write about something that serious at the time, or it's not necessarily qualified, but I just didn't feel like people are going to listen to a rando talk about something that's that serious.
So I started off writing about trying headline, clickbait headline-y, silly, funny posts that I thought could ... This is back in 2013, when everything was Facebook. Facebook was the big, big thing. And I was like, what can go viral on Facebook? What can kind of get ... I was anonymous on the blog for a while. And so it was just kind of like I thought I could do a lot if I had a platform, but first, just how do I get a platform? So it was like, yeah, just write a bunch of things that might go viral on Facebook and use stick figures and just do my style, but make them a little bit more high quality than the old blog.
So that was the beginning. And then from there, slowly and steadily the topics got deeper and more serious as I started to realize, okay, I'm getting good feedback from these. People want to hear what I have to say about this kind of stuff. And they got a little longer. At the beginning of my head, I said, 2000 words is the limit. I had this thing in my head that a lot of people have in their head. This is what conventional wisdom says right now is that no one reads long articles. 2000 words was already a lot. It better be good if it was going to be 2000. And then I had one that was like, eh, this one maybe went to 3000. People still liked it.
Then I wrote one on the Fermi Paradox. It was my longest article yet. It was like 4,500 or something words. And I remember thinking, I was like, this is a topic that I love, but this isn't for most people. It's very nerdy and specific and it's a Tim topic. And it's a long blog post and there's not that many drawings. So this one isn't going to be a big post. This will be a little one for people who really like this. And I was totally wrong. People love that post. It really helped bring a lot of new people into Wait But Why. At that point I started saying, okay, there's a lot more people like me out there. And I would read a long thing if it was done in a funny, fun way about a topic.
So I started just going for it and doing whatever I wanted to do. And that sometimes took posts really long. And I just followed my curiosity at that point. And I'm still doing that, and it turns out that long posts can be read. They just have to grab people and be fun to read, interesting, around a topic that people are dying to learn more about. But people will, if they learn to trust you as a writer. I think it helps to build up that trust first maybe with some stuff that's not so long. Once people trust you, they say, okay, well, if this guy wrote a long thing, I'm sure it's worth reading because I know how he thinks from other stuff. And so I think having built up some trust really helped.
And I feel very lucky to be able to be in a position where there's enough people that I can kind of write what I want. I can write really long, almost book length thing. And I know that people will read it. That's really fun. It makes it really fun to write stuff. So yeah, I feel very, very fortunate.
Finding Your Authorial Voice
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And so to talk about that, you mentioned early on, I didn't think that some rando, aka someone without PhD or credentials or academic affiliation, could actually hold forth on a topic. Something I found fascinating, especially in your essay, I mean it's one thing to talk about Fermi or AI, and you just get to distill a very robust field. But when you were writing on relationships and you were talking about the different characters and personality types and married or unmarried, and whether how happy different people are and those kinds of things, I was very attuned. I'm like, Oh, wait, where's the authorial voice here? Essentially, how much are you sharing or holding forth from your own lived experience? And there's different places where you could have come. You could have said, I've been through the ringer, friends and neighbors, and I'm here to share with you my story. There's that kind of self-disclosing narrative.
There's the I'm Esther Perel and I've had thousands of clients in my office and I'm going to distill my professional insights. And then you, I think, navigated something that's fairly rare where you were creating original formulations. You were also adding in research, third party objective research, and it was very human, but there was nothing about your own life and experiences. And I just found that to be a really ... I mean, I'm always struggling with that same thing, which is what do I need to put in someone else's mouth versus what is something I think and believe. What will a reader give me permission to talk about versus not? When they say, Hey, that's a bridge too far.
And I'm just curious as to how you found that. Because on the one hand, the stick figures are about as everyman humanizing as possible. And there's a degree of vulnerability and humanity of the author. I'm just drawing stick figures. Very approachable. And you also do a great job of quite rigorous, and I don't mean this in a pejorative way, but a very helpful way. A reader's digest of statistics analysis, larger reports. How have you found that as far as is that just the natural place your authorial voice has settled? Do you find yourself ever yearning to speak from your heart more forthrightly or asked to by readers or called out if you cross those lines? What's that kind of threading that no man's land of who am I and why am I saying the things I'm saying? How do you navigate that?
Tim Urban: Yeah. So I kind of think there's kind of two categories of posts for me. There's stuff that is my own life observations, stuff that I think about, whether it's about my psychology or about stuff like friendships or relationships or awkward social moments or whatever. And then there's stuff where I'm like, as you said at the beginning, distilling something. So the ladder takes a ton of research. I read and read, and my goal is to get myself. I always think of knowledge as a one through 10. 10 is the world's leading expert, PhDs have nines and down to one has ever heard of the topic. So I just started a lot of these that are two or a three. I know a little bit about it. I've heard about it, but I'm not a junkie on it.
And I try to get myself in my research to a six. So it's this very specific niche, which is get myself to a six and then try to bring my readers up to a six with me. Or maybe if I have to get to a six, bring my readers up to a five, because I think to get people to a five, you should be in a six, whatever it is. So it's just something like that. And I find that it probably takes about 100 times longer to get to a nine. Then they get [inaudible 00:15:41]. The goal is not pretend to be something I'm not. Never pretend to be an expert when I'm not.
So very openly to basically be ... The way I think about it is if I just read about something for three straight weeks, just became obsessed with the topic and just dug in and dug in and read a few books and read through some journal articles and read a bunch of articles on it and listened to some podcasts on it and thought and thought and brainstormed. And what's the real deal with this topic? If I did that, and then I had dinner with five or six of my friends, and I was like, "So listen to this. Let me tell you about this topic." And I was telling them about it. And they were really interested in the topic and they started asking questions and I could answer most of the questions. That's what I'm going for.
So if I spend three weeks reading about something, I have a lot to offer those five or six interested, curious friends. If they really wanted to dig in, I could answer two hours of questions of theirs because I really understand it now. I understand what we think and I understand the different points of view, where there's consensus, where there's not. I start to understand the background and how it really works. That's enough to really do a Q&A with laymen, which is a layman that I was three weeks earlier. I could go back to that person and now do a Q&A with 100 of him three weeks later. I can do that. So that's where I want to be.
If someone said, would you want to be on a panel of experts talking about the newest ideas on this, I would probably say no. I'd say, unless you want someone who can sum up what other experts say, great. But if you want an original expert who's actually done the original researching here, I'm not on that level. But for what most people want, at least the kind of the people like me, curious people who they don't necessarily want to spend two years digging in and getting to be an expert. They want to spend a couple hours one day learning a lot more about something and getting oriented. I can do that. I can actually provide that with only three weeks, maybe six weeks, maybe sometimes one week of research. So that's this topic, that's this kind of post.
Then on the other side, the observation. Again, I think about friends. I think there's so many people in the world on the internet that if you just start doing your thing, the people who you're friends with, who are like you, who think the same way, the same sense of humor, the same kind of curiosity, they're going to find you. And so I consider my readers to be an extension of my group of friends basically. It's the kind of people that if I knew them, I'd probably be friends with them. And so that makes it easy because I don't have to worry about, am I qualified to tell ... Again, if I'm at dinner with some friends and I have a theory on relationships I've been thinking about, I don't have to say, Oh, well, I don't have a PhD in this. I haven't interviewed thousands of people so I'm not going to say this with my friend. No, I would just be like, Hey, so here's, what do you think about this? And again, it's just not pretending to be something you're not.
So relationships, that's one of the most important topics for everyone. Whether it's friendships or marriages or whatever. And I think about it constantly. I spent my whole 20s and a lot of my teens thinking what matters. This is such a big thing. And then getting married to someone probably. What matters there? Or just for if I have a girlfriend, what makes that a good relationship versus bad? It's something that my friends and I talk about all the time. Both female friends and male friends, we always talked about it. I have two sisters. We talk about it all the time. It's just an interesting topic. It's such an important thing.
And so that's the kind of thing that I'm always developing my own theories about. In college I remember talking to my friends. These two friends and I, we would talk about this a lot. I remember presenting them one of my latest theories which is okay, there's three things that actually matter in a relationship and if you hit those three, you're good. But you really want to have all those three if you can. First one is attraction, which is some kind of, that's a bigger bucket. It's not just sexual attraction, but it's also a crush. You have a crush on them. It's not just a friend. They tickle you. You get butterflies at the beginning. Obviously that's hard to keep that whole thing going forever, but it's something more than you're a normal platonic female friend of mine. It's like, no, no, this is like, that person gets me excited. Okay.
Then the second thing is they have to be actually like really close friends. You can't like hanging with your friends more than you like hanging with them. Obviously you can't just have the crush and the attractions and the physical stuff be the reason that you like being with them. So, in other words, as much as I like talking on the phone to a friend, when there's no physical possibility, I have to like talking to them as much or more, probably ideally even more. They're one of my favorite friends to just chat with. So that's really important.
And then the third thing is deep trust, like you just think they're deep down a really good person that you feel very safe with and you just have complete confidence that they're not going to do anything really bad to you. So if you have those three things, I was like, nothing else matters. It's like you won. You won. So I'm not seeing anything groundbreaking here. This is stuff I'm sure a lot of people have had that exact same thought.. But it's just the categories makes it like a framework.
And so when I started realizing ... I think at the beginning, I would have said, no one wants to hear my little random theory. And as I started writing, I realized that's not true because my friends wanted to hear that. They might disagree, but it's a great conversation. But they'd say, no, actually I think you have it wrong. Then we'd say, well, which one of these three is a deal breaker if it's not. So we'd get into a conversation. And I started to realize that my blog was a big, huge dinner table of my friends. So I can write that theory, and I can let people comment on it and people will agree and disagree, and we'll all have fun. And that's a really fun thing on the internet to have for someone. So it was this slow process of realizing it's okay to just be me and not pretend to be anything else. And there's something that people want there.
Now, the relationships, when you said it's some kind of hybrid of these two where it actually did involve research as well. Because I thought I have all these thoughts about this, but it wasn't even the plan. It's just that as I started thinking about it, I was reading articles about it. I just like to read some ideas that are out there to try to help fill in my own ideas. And I started coming across some really interesting research, especially on Eric Barker's blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, for that post. He's a friend of mine. And also, before he was a friend, I was a huge fan of his blog. He has so many good things on relationships and he distills. He really does the reader's digest. He takes all these books and he distills it with bold lines into here's the real deal. And so I had a little bit of knowledge because of that. So I said, let me bring some of his stuff into this. And that's just what happened for that post. Every post is its own unique thing.
So yeah, that's kind of my thinking is as I go, I see the feedback because I have a big comment section. I get emails so I see feedback. And that starts to tell me what's working and what's not. And then I evolve from there.
Long Term Self-Sustaining Tips in the World of Content Creation
Jamie Wheal: So I'm just going to ask you a question about the market side of it, if it's okay. And we can just have this conversation. I'm super curious about this. If this is in any way not what you'd like to talk about on screen, we can just whack it. But this is super curious to me. So you mentioned talking about that you-
You mentioned talking about that the audience for wait, but why it's kind of an extended ex extension of your friend cycle or a sort of really vibrant dinner party. And you mentioned that back in the beginning, back in 2013, you were kind of like, Hey, how can I, you know, choose topics, right. Things that work on Facebook that can grow and have a big audience, that kind of stuff. And, and you talked about how you've just been choosing to follow your interests and passions, which is this beautifully, you know, kind of pure, intuitive pursuit of just your love of learning shed. And at the same time, you know, if you look around the, whatever you would call it, I suppose the realm of ideas, the conversations in public thought these days, and, you know, everybody's got some different way of making it, of supporting the platform and growing.
So, you know, you have people who do podcasts and then they sell trainings and workshops, or they sell supplements and they reinvest that money into building a community or a culture or research. You've had Sam Harris and Tim Ferris with both very publicly and transparently with their audience audiences played with, well, do we have ads on our podcast or do we actually charge for membership and have gated content? And which works well in which ways? And then, you know, there's a lot of people, you know, Jordan Peterson going onto Patreon, you know, there's now sub stack for subscriptions to newsletters. So what is the, what is the way, what lessons have you learned or found along the way, as far as, how do you both make this something other than just a bottomless pit of time and charity mouth make it self-sustaining and something that can support you in the world and your livelihood and preserves your intellectual freedom and curiosity to move forward. Cause I feel like that's a, that's a sort of conversation that everyone is trying to innovate on themselves, but I don't know if we're necessarily having an all together, which is, you know, the sponsored the artist in the Renaissance, right? Wherever everybody's coming up with transitional, patchworks from tenure at a university, or I get, you know, seven figure book deals every couple of years to how do we, how do we support the ecology of this kind of public public sphere? What have you noticed? What have you been learning for yourself?
Tim Urban: Yeah, I think that it depends on the size of the platform. The bigger the platform, the easier it is to not have to center your content and what you're thinking and what you're doing around revenue. So if you have 10,000 passionate readers, right? Something that's plenty to support a career, but you have to be selling something legit to them , maybe you're selling them courses or you're selling them merchandise, maybe you're charging an annual subscription fee. Something where a thousand people can be paying a hundred bucks a year, so 10 10th of your readers are paying a hundred dollars a year. But you have to really, you know that's not going to happen by itself. Right. You're going to have to push that and, and talk about that and really build something that's going to turn into that revenue, cause you know you know, just right away, even if just say you are doing a thousand people paying a hundred bucks a year.
Okay, a hundred thousand that sounds great. Patreon usually the platform itself costs a significant, you know, just all these upkeep of your , whatever you're doing and your equipment and your MailChimp and your hosting and it adds up. So, you know, it might still be a tight living, but you can pull it off. Now, if you have a hundred thousand readers, different, different game now, you know, you need, you need fewer dollars from them and you need fewer people. If you a smaller percentage of them to, to give, you know what I mean? That gets up to a million readers. Someone like Tim Ferriss probably has 10 million readers or viewers. Once you get to this level, now something like Patreon starts to be really bad because if 1% of your readers gets five bucks a year, you know, you suddenly you're, you're, you're doing great.
Right? So I think it depends on the size. I think we have a wise, you know, somewhere in the middle there where I think, you know, we, we now have 600,000 email subscribers, you know, so those are people who really like the blog and that's been that's enough where Patreon for us is a really big deal. You know, it's not this little extra supplement but it's a really big deal. It really is the reason we can have a full-time employee and like the whole site, everything, just, everything moves faster and more efficiently and higher quality because she's here, Right? And it just frees up time. And so it, you know, when you're one comp, when you're a one person company, cause you know, my co-founder Andrew, he works on our other company when, when you're a one person company hiring one full-time employee is a complete game changer.
So the reason we can do that, cause again, a MailChimp and hosting, and it was the different tweaks on the site. And it adds up pretty quickly to where, you know, you need that. So, so our feature on is a big deal for us. And then we sell stuff in our store, which is, you know, again, when there's enough people, you can just put that out. You don't have to be pushing it too much and it will add up to something. So we put wise not a huge moneymaker, but our goal for it is basically that it breaks even, and, or a little bit better so that we can just keep this going. You know, maybe one day we'll, you know, Sam has a meditation app that I think does great, you know, one day, you know, not, it's not our top priority.
One day I could see if there's an idea that we have that happens to make money that, but it's something that really fits with the brand and fits what we want to be doing, and it's something I would, I would, I would be, I think like readers would be really, really excited to actually have. Then, then maybe we'll do that and maybe wait for what can can, but at the moment, you know, it's just not, that's not where our heads are, it's , it, the goal is the goal is to make it sustainable. Long-term sustainable. So it's something I can do. And I don't ever, ever want to be doing, thinking, having my [inaudible 00:30:37] be kind of invaded by, but, but, but we have to make money off this and that's a luxury, I don't think then I don't think it's like, Oh, everyone should think that way. Not like, I feel very lucky that we have enough people that Patreon plus the store and stuff. It means I can, I don't have to be thinking too hard about that. I can pick topics that I want to do our list of whether there's any of a possibility for, you know, for revenue. So stuff like that, you know, we just made an app, an app with them, the YouTube channel, and they're in the same position.
How Tim Became a Curious Polymath
Jamie Wheal: I think that your commitment to the clarity and in some respects the sort of the purity or integrity of what you're doing for the joy of it, for the love of it, for your curiosity bleeds through, and then that's the paradox, right? It's precisely that, which is magnetic to others because it doesn't feel transactional. It doesn't feel in any way salesy. And I think, you know, Tim Ferriss was able to do that because he nailed it very successfully in his Silicon Valley tech investment.
So his podcast series is truly a labor of love for him. Sam has done something similar and the ability to be above the fray is I think a huge part of what proved so appealing is that you're sharing things for the, you know, for the love of love of the ideas themselves and the joy of your discovery and, and sharing it. And I'm, I can't help it ask, cause there's an old saying that like, you always fight your first martial art, you know, like even if you learn subsequent different ones that kind of, that one that set you is kind of how your muscle memory is. And you know, in your undergraduate experience at Harvard, what, what discipline were you in and what professors particularly landed for you or shaped the way you've become this kind of curious polymath.
Tim Urban: I mean, if I could go back to college, I would do, I probably would take like a bunch of intro classes only because those were the most fun for me. Like Psych 101 was so interesting. I took like an you know, 101 kind of astronomy class, human behavioral biology, these were kind of electives, but they were the most interesting. And then I majored in government, which was fine, but it bored me and I had to write a lot of papers and I don't really know why I did that. I mean, the truth is for the first time now I'm writing this, this longer series. It's actually for the first time, I'm like, yeah, that actually I'm using some of what I learned there, but what I, if I could go back, I would just have followed my curiosity and just had like a, because good things happen when you are lit up by learning when something is super fun that you're learning, like just, it's almost, it's rare in life that that's not going to lead you somewhere
Good, I think no matter, no matter what, you, no matter what you're doing. So I think at the time I felt like I should do like a more, you know, I don't know, but, but also just the idea of majors. Like I feel like it's, you know, some people are going to college to get a skill or a body of knowledge that is going to be important for their career. And that's great. That's great efficient use of college. You come out at 22, you're already kind of, you know, hitting the ground, running, almost treating it like a grad school and the college at the same time. And then a lot of Americans though, they're not even majoring in something they planned to do. They major in history and they want to be a lawyer or something, you know, and you know, people this all the time and, and that's great, I think, but I think that I don't know why they forced you to major.
You should be able to basically, if you're not, if you're not trying to become kind of a, getting almost a good grad school degree in college, why not allow you, the people just to take whatever they want. I don't really get it. So I had to major, which means half of my classes had to be in one discipline. Anyway, I think for me, you know, to answer your question, I think, I don't think I'm any more of like a polymath than any of my good friends. You know, any people, people that are really curious, they just learn about stuff. They listen to different podcasts and stuff. They're always talking about stuff. They, they, you know, it doesn't have to come from classes. They're just constant learners. They're always learning. And then they, then you talk to your friend and they're learning something, they recommend something.
And you end up with a decently well-rounded, you know, basic understanding of a lot of things. And then for me, you know, that's, I'll, I'll take that as a foundation. And then when I want to write about something, I'll go a little bit deeper onto a specific topic there, but then I can jump around because if I'm not trying to be, you know, there are people like they, there, there are DaVinci's out there that are true. Like world-class experts on many different things. And that's, you know, someone like blanking on his name, marginal revolution. Hmm, no, sorry. I got it. This is, this is blanketing. Just worth getting his name. I have my dad's thing where I can't remember names anymore. It's like, it's really an annoying thing.
Jamie Wheal: Like if you send the little hamster wheel of your mind down to the basement, he finds it. It's just three to five minutes later, you just have to kind of let him run, you know?
Tim Urban: Yeah, I like that perfect recall of most things than names I'm just Tyler Cowen. Tyler Cowen is an example or a Anders Sandberg, Daniel Schmachtenberger, or, you know, like some people are truly like they could be on a panel of experts on 10 different topics. That's really rare. Steven Pinker, you know, John Haidt, some of these people are really like crazy and what they know, that's not even really my goal. Like, it just sounds really hard. I don't really [crosstalk 00:43:12] want to whatever these are lifelong academics. Like the, I don't really want to do that. You know, I'd rather be someone that can have an intelligent conversation about a lot of things without having to go be an expert and then can dig in further to anyone and really know enough, you know, and especially cause the foundation of a well-rounded foundation of knowledge helps you with any topic because you can just see the connections and you can see patterns.
That's, that's what I mean. That's, what's fun for me. And so I just don't see any reason not to just do what's fun. I think that's, I think some people, it is truly fun to become a nine out of 10 on many topics. They're just obsessive deep learners. I think it's, again, a little like college, I'd rather take a bunch of one-on-one classes. I think in life, I kind of want to do the same. I want to, I want to read. And I think breadth is really great because you can start to the more you, you know, you start to see connections, as I said. So I think breadth can really build this kind of deeper understanding of everything in a way. So
Jamie Wheal: As soon as sort of the parade principle of discovery, which is that first 20% of learning, especially if you get kick-ass, you know, resources to draw from is 80% of the fund. And then you've got the 80% of the effort in the work to, to get your Guild credential. But a lot of times the Joey has gone. So this is interesting cause you, you you've, you've been not only describing, but I think modeling in the enthusiasm of, of your, your conversation, your passion and joy for being a, an intentional Jack of all trades, like let's go broad, let's really pursue where things are most alive. And actually that's completely congruent like Maria Montessori, his theory of childhood education, the idea that we through sensitive stages and when we're in a given sensitive stage, if it's for quantum physics or bridge-building or birdwatching or dinosaurs, then we will absorb it, suck the marrow out of it.
And then we're complete for the, for a time period until we moved to the next thing. And then you've also talked about, and you've alluded a couple of times to this most recent project, which I mean, is that the story of us that you're [crosstalk 00:45:09] referring to. Yeah. And, and in the preface to that, right, you, you kind of said, you're like, Hey, it's probably safer. And generally more fun for everyone, for me to be writing about Fermi, paradox, AI, the funny things we do in relationships, you know, it's a little bit of the third rail to grab onto and start talking about socio-political things. And there was even, there was even one of your posts where you had to sort of I'm imagining, cause I didn't see the comments that prompted it, but I'm imagining you were like, Hey, what's the gender of my stick figures? What's the ethnicity of my stick figures? What do I call them with my pronouns selection?
Tim Urban: Yeah. That was fun. That was a lot of fun for everyone. And the reaction to that one.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Which is which I would imagine landed somewhere in the damned if you do damned if you don't category
Tim Urban: Very much. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Why Tim Is a Zealot of Free Speech
Jamie Wheal: So, so, so let's talk about this. So you've been talking about fun, playful exploration, and then this story of us for folks that haven't come across it is it's at least been all of 2020, right?
Tim Urban: Oh yeah. Yeah. It started at end of 2019. Yeah.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. And, and starting to lean into discussing, you know, clear and present dangers discussing how we got to fractured society, bringing back on maybe some of your poly psy perspectives and Jonathan Haidt, that whole discussion. So one for you felt that you needed to felt that that was the next inevitable step. And what has that been like to go from the somewhat abstract forever wonderings of, of your other more playful, you know, accessible topics into things that are quite charged right now, why'd you do it and how has, and I know you're glad you did. And, and how has that ride been so far?
Tim Urban: So I, I did it specifically. I actually don't find this to be my favorite topic and it's certainly not great for my career. I'm definitely losing some readers writing about it's a, it's a religious topic for a lot of people, politics and not at what you said, you're going to commit blasphemy against some people. I don't think my typical reader is like that. That's, you know, again, I think I'm attracting with my type of writing type of people that, that are open they're, they like open disagreements. My comment section is never had a comment section where some people aren't telling me I'm wrong, but they're doing it in this grownup way, which I love, like it's the most interesting comment section is one with a ton of different opinions and everyone's being a grownup about it and know, know everyone is being respectful and asking questions and, and no one's getting personal. So I think that those people, that type of person very rarely is religious about politics. They like politics. They were about politics. Like they are about everything else. They like to discuss disagree respectfully. They treat it like a set of ideas, not like their identity or their tribe. Right. And so, but that said, if all it takes is 5%, 10% of readers to be religious about it, to have.
But with that said, it all takes is 5%, 10% of readers to be religious about to have because those people if you are committing blasphemy, they're going to comment. So then you'll have even just 10 people who are livid with what you just said will just completely change the tone of a comment section. So I knew what I was getting into, there's no surprises here. The reason I did it is because specifically, it's like this meadow thing I did it because the reaction I knew I was going to get is the problem. So you mentioned it's a third rail for politics for how we should run our societies and what's right and wrong, good and bad in our society moving forward into a really unpredictable future for that to be a third rail is like we're all on a boat and it is headed either towards a waterfall down to our deaths or towards this beautiful meadow.
And it's foggy and there's a fork somewhere ahead and if you can give me drift kind of the wrong way we ended up going down the waterfall we won't even see it coming. And if we go the right way... And imagine if someone said whatever you do, don't talk about the river don't talk about the fog don't talk about rowing it's the third rail. You can talk about anything else but it's a third rail to discuss what we should be doing and why and what's going right and wrong on this boat and whether the boat is made well right now and how we fix the leaks in the boat. That's a third rail.
Talk about other stuff. Talk about fun things but just don't mention, it's like the thing we for sure have to talk about is the boat and where we're going right now like our society this is a really big deal. So it's the worst possible thing to be the third rail. And if we get religious about religion and suddenly hit this age, where suddenly no one can talk about Christianity or Islam or anything without you know, or atheism without you know, I actually think we've come out of an age like that. I think now it's almost kind of fine to talk about, openly say you're an atheist, no one cares. Hopefully, say you're Christian some people will be difficult about that but basically like you can kind of, I think religious wise, at least in like the weight [inaudible 00:50:12] world I can make fun of religion I can make fun of atheism and it's going to go over fine. I know this from experience.
Write about politics, make fun of the left to make fun of the right. It's going to be nasty. So I think if we're religious about religion, it's fine because it's not affecting necessarily unless there's some kind of religious war it's not affecting where the boat's going but with politics and just discussing society and right, and wrong and policies and our culture and what we should be allowed to say or not is the worst possible thing. So free speech, I've become basically a free speech [inaudible 00:50:57] the one thing it's good to be this outlet about, which is just like free speech in a society and it's not just the first amendment because we have that already. It's this culture of free speech that's the second piece of the puzzle. First amendment plus a culture of free speech equals free speech. First amendment plus a culture where what you say can get your head bitten off, no free speech. We might as well not have a first amendment, right.
Jamie Wheal: So talk to me about that. So I think what was it, three, four months ago maybe I've kind of lost track of quarantine time but there was a period maybe mid-summer or beginning of the summer where there was 150 signatories in that letter. I think it was to Harper's weekly and it was thought leaders, et cetera, et cetera, and John McWhorter from Columbia, I think Steven Pinker was in there as well as other righteous Salman Rushdie, et cetera. And it was just kind of basically saying, in slightly more formal terms what you've just described. And then they just got pilloried on Twitter and then the thing goes for being entitled and having platforms and bringing their hands and they deserve to be canceled anyway, that kind of a conversation.
Were you're tracking that as that happened? Do You have some thoughts on it or just that general idea that at this point, even sticking your head above the ramparts and saying, "Hey, I think we should all get along." It's sort of subject to getting shot from both sides these days. The idea even of things like, "Hey, we should have a global coordinator response to a pandemic" or "Hey, every vote should count in a democracy." Things that I would have thought up until the last year or three would have been uncontested really clear middle ground are now still being volatile and still sort of somehow signifying to factions that you're not on their side so you must be against them. I mean, what are you noticing in that space? The erosion of the moderate, middle of civil consensus.
How “Hate Speech” Is Interpreted by Different Groups
Tim Urban: Yeah. So the reason I'm [azella 00:53:04] with free speech because when you give an inch and you start saying, "Okay, really offensive speech, hate speech is not allowed." You've broken the system and here's why, because ask an evangelical Christian or ask a conservative Muslim, or ask a San Francisco atheist ask them what's offensive, what's hate speech. And they have three very different answers. So what you're really saying when you say hate speech is not allowed, is what you're saying is whoever is in the most, and again, that not first amendment why that's a different discussion because that also there's some infringements actually legally, but just culturally, when you say that one thing as a society we're not going to permit is hate speech. What you're really saying is whoever has the most cultural power, their definition of hate speech is no longer alive. Pro-choice, talking about the case for abortion is hate speech to a hardcore pro-lifer.
To them they would say, you're talking about why it's okay to kill babies that should never be allowed you should be to be fired from your job for mentioning it. So that's what they might say. The reason that if you've made the rule that hate speech is not okay then all it takes to those people to get a little more cultural power maybe in 10 years there's a wave of for some reason the cultural power there, and suddenly no one can say anything about pro-choice anymore. On the other hand, you could say that hate speech is saying you're disagreeing that affirmative action is an effective policy.
Most people don't think that's hate speech, but one group certainly does. And what it's saying is if they're in the cultural power, now if you say anything about affirmative action you're going to have your career ruined, right? So the reason it's bad is because what you're doing when you say hate speech isn't allowed or offensive stuff it's okay to censor that what you're really saying is whoever this most cultural powerful group is you can play speech arbiter for now. And then when someone else becomes the most culturally powerful group, whoever they are, they can play speech arbiter. And what happens inevitably is once you give that power to this group, the definition of what's hate speech and what's offensive starts to drift and drift and drift until it's anything that disagrees with their kind of sacred dogma because the kind of people that like to disagree and the kind of people that like to be open they don't want to censor anyone in the first place.
So the kind of people that are doing this that are censoring this they're the kind of people that have an authoritarian impulse. They would like to censor things they don't agree with if they could. And when you [inaudible 00:55:59] free speech you are now allowing that group, whoever it is to do that and they will and they'll do more and more until suddenly we're in a religious society where you can't commit blasphemy against this one Bible. Every one of these groups have their own Bible, Crom, whatever. This group's Bible, this is the one that's the law of the land now, culturally and no one can violate, can commit blasphemy against this group because they run the TV stations and they run Silicon Valley and they run Academia and they run the mainstream media and whoever those people happen to be they make the laws.
And then maybe those younger people at those companies start to have enough power that they scare the older people into kind of handing over the control of what's allowed to... And very quickly this just gets a nasty look at so many examples in history. So you got to be a free speech to tell it. And it's like, okay, well, why is censorship so bad? The reason it's so bad other than the fact that it's a violation of freedom, if a pro-lifer has got a lot of power and suddenly we had to talk about pro-choice stuff in private, obviously that's a violation of freedom. It's not the place the US is supposed to be about but the reason it's so bad is that no one human in society knows that much no one human knows how to build a skyscraper there's that famous thing no one human even knows how to make a pencil. There's so many different people and industries, right?
Jamie Wheal: I actually use that. I use that as an example in my next book, the pencil story.
“Idea Lab” - a Free Speech Culture
Tim Urban: I love it. I think we are smart collectively, collectively we can figure stuff out. There's a wisdom we have when collectively now but I think it's interesting because when the collective is forced to kind of abide by a certain dogma, which we call an echo chamber. An echo chamber is a group of people who their speech has been restricted to a certain Bible of whatever kind. When you have that, the collective becomes dumber than an average human. The collective becomes a very, I think of it as like a big dumb, giant that is just pushing this one religion, whatever it is.
On the other hand, the opposite of an echo chamber, I call an idea lab a free speech culture where everyone's saying what they really think. And no one's afraid to put out bad ideas or put out ideas that might get someone else off because everyone's just going to kick the ideas and no one kicks each other. We're just going to keep the ideas on the floor and kick them around and see which one works and which ones don't, that is a system that is smart. And why? That system together is smarter than all the individuals in it. The echo chamber is dumber than all of us.
Jamie Wheal: Let's talk about that for a second, right? Because I think it doesn't take three demographers to realize we're going nose-diving away from smart idea labs into kind of hulk smash, warring versions of groupthink. And you mentioned these sort of highly dysfunctional echo chambers and the echo chamber is not even one monolithic, it's at least a couple of highly fractious tendentious tribal ones. And you mentioned authoritarianism the idea that I hold the will and desire to assert our unilateral value systems onto others. And I don't know if you saw that I think it was University of Melbourne, maybe sometime in the last 12 weeks, just released a study on US. I think they did 500 sample size of people with non-centrist positions. So alt-right white identitarians, progressive liberal, and then authoritarian liberal, or kind of what might be known as the sort of social justice movement.
And they did psychographic assessment and found that none of the folks in the middle, regardless of their perspectives, those folks all held out the idea of I might hold beliefs sacrosanct but I also preserve the right for others to have their own different beliefs but both far left and far right scored off the charts on authoritarianism, machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. And so that idea that you're like, Oh, wow. And to your point where you said, there's lots of examples through history, right? I think it's critical for folks on both sides to realize it's not just Nazis far-right folks, area nation kind of folks that can be scary. There is also Robespierre and the French revolution, right? I mean, liberty equality, brotherhood, that was a pretty groovy set of humanitarian values. And Robespierre just tacked to the left, tacked to the left and it was clearly not a good egg.
So, at least in some respects, it feels to me and I'm curious if this lands or tracks with the way you've been thinking about the echo chambers and the idea labs is that it's less about right and left, right now than it is about people of all political persuasions who are committed to the sort of the infinite game that kind of James [Castle 01:01:02] idea of the enlightenment experiment, American democracy. I detest what you say but just defend your right to say it, that neck of the woods, like we commit to the game above either of our preferred outcomes versus finite gamers on either side that are like smash and grab and take everything for the winning team, for our people.
And the other does not deserve a handshake at the end and so to me, you talked about the boat sailing off Niagara falls, that's the one that feels to me like that's the matter above all the chatter of what's going on right now. Is are we still committed to the infinite game? Win or lose we value that as sacrosanct, or are we looking to dismantle the civil society and just grab what's ours for our truck? Does that track for you?
Tim Urban: Well, the thing I think we need which is the core of my whole series. Which is going to be a book and it's the core of the whole book.
Jamie Wheal: Oh, nice. Because I wanted to ask you about that.
Tim Urban: Yeah, yeah. Is we need a vertical axis. So we have a horizontal axis right left-center. And a lot of times when people are trying to make a point, they're saying center but center is just another what you think. So this is a what you think axis. They think something right they think something, the center thinks something. It's all what you think, right? Because people are saying we need to move to the center but they're trying to say something else. They're not saying we need to, instead of being zealots about these positions we need to be zealots about this position.
That's not what they're saying, they're talking about then we need to be not zealots and we need to be open-minded and we need to be respectful of each other's opinions and allow each other to respect of each other and allow for disagreement and allow for compromise. And so to me, we need a second axis. And that second axis, I call it the psych ladder and for a lot of reasons but basically it's the, how you think axis. And at the top of it across the spectrum, you've got thinkers that are open to disagreement that are not religious about their ideas that are searching for truth are deeply motivated by truth. They have a humility. They know they're wrong about a bunch of stuff. They are searching for truth they're down to change their mind along the way they're fun to argue with because they'll tell you when they disagree and they'll also maybe change their mind if you make a really good point, right?
So that's a certain way of thinking and that extends to I know people from the far right, the center, or the far left all go across there that are like this, and they're passionate about the reviews but there's nothing you can say that's going to ruin your friendship. They're just going to be like, "Okay, now I'll tell you why you're wrong." And it gets heated, it's fun though. It's heated in a fun way. No one's friendship's at stake, whatever. Those people are never going to try to cancel anyone they're just going to be like, "No great. Say it, say it loud and I'm going to say something just as loud to show everyone why you're wrong." Which is what the marketplace of ideas is supposed to be. You can say something but your idea might get torn apart. And when you say something to an open marketplace, it's naked out there and if your idea is getting a lot of attention and it's not good and it has flaws, it's going to be exposed so quickly.
So down at the bottom, as you move down, you get to towards the people who think totally differently. They are religious about their ideas, their ideas are their identities. So they are their ideas. Meaning they're not changing their mind because that's like committing identity suicide for them. These are people who are impossible to argue with. They're a brick wall. They have their confirmation bias in their heads assuring that they will never change their mind. They're in denial about anything that proves them wrong. They're anti-science always, they're not searching for truth deep down. They might say they are, they might think they are but deep down their motivation is to confirm what they already believe and that's the articles they read, and they look for confirmation and they just want to continue. It feels so good to be told. They're right. They're right. They're right.
They don't care whether deep down whether they are right or not, they just want to feel right and they don't have any humility. They are positive they're right. And if they have enough power they will actually try to make sure no one disagrees with them openly, whether it's to them or out in public, instead of saying, I'm not going to listen to that podcast because I don't like what they're saying. They're going to go even further and say, "I don't want anyone allowed to listen to that podcast so I'm going to try to shut that podcast down." Canceling it so bad because it's not just a choice for you it's a choice for everyone. It's a choice that and so...
Jamie Wheal: On your psych ladder, are you explicitly or implicitly using adult developmental theory like Bob Kegan, Jane Loevinger, Clare Graves, Spiral Dynamics any of those kind of models or is this just intuitively what you've been unpacking?
Tim Urban: It's intuitive. It's based on, I think there's kind of a primitive mind in a higher mind, and this is like an old concept of two minds and it's been lots of different controversial views on it. I just think of it as primitive mind is just kind of what humans are programmed to do. We're programmed to be religious about our ideas and to groupthink, and to agree with our tribe, not to find truth but to be a strong unit that all agrees and we hate the people that disagree. This makes sense a long time ago. Then there's this higher mind that can say, well, that doesn't actually make sense, and let's be better than that, and let's look for truth and it's not thinking like that. It's thinking much more kind of in real-time, looking at the real world around it, and being rational based on that world versus the primitive mind can't see the real world. It's a software program.
And so to me, the people low on the ladder we all can do it. It's not that those people... We all are lower in the ladder sometimes and the people lower in the ladder they fall on prey to their primitive mind thinking they're thinking like that with their software not more consciously. And so people higher up on the ladder they have primitive instinct to confirm what you believe is being overridden. Just like you can override the desire to eat Skittles. You can override a lot.
Jamie Wheal: Sometimes.
Tim Urban: Yeah. Sometimes it's a struggle. I think of it as a tug of war in your head. And that for me, I procrastinate constantly, this is my tug of war going the wrong way but when we're thinking like a zealot we're losing that tug of war in our intellect.
The “Cancel” Culture
Jamie Wheal: And Bret Weinstein, our mutual friend I don't know if you've seen his short little talk on that but he's like, look be super careful if we revert back to identity politics because once you do that you're unwinding 10,000 years of incredibly rare, fragile, elective, broad group cooperation. The idea that all men and women are created equal and entitles the same rights is not genetically encoded, right. That is a notion and it's a incredibly delicate notion and the moment you throw the flag on the play of saying, you're this color or that color, or this gender, or that color of this clause or that clause or this faith of that faith, the moment you do that you're now triggering what you're describing as the lower animal energies. And even if you think it is in service of progressivism, you're actually going to actually fire up and magnetize the opposition which ends up being ethnocentric death squads, not to be overly dramatic but be super careful [crosstalk 01:08:14].
Tim Urban: It's kind of like humanity has been on a diet a really strict diet and it's like, we're letting ourselves go. And it's like, Oh, we've like fallen off the wagon and we're like eating shit again, which is like a little what Brett's saying. It's like we don't realize that we've been on a very strict diet. And if you let that go, we will fall back to what we always do, which is make small religious groups that kill each other and hate each other and think that dehumanize each other and don't look for truth anymore don't cooperate.
And this is kind of what I was saying before. You have the echo chambers, which is what the people on the bottom form, and the idea labs, which is what the people on the top form and free speech society isn't saying everyone has to be at the top. It's saying it's legal to be on the top. No government can stop people from being on the top and having open discussion and the people on the bottom can't use violence to stop the people on the top. Which is almost how it always happens. The people on the top that fragile-
Jamie Wheal: They get lined up and shot, right? That's the first thing that happens.
Tim Urban: And they don't shoot all of them you shoot five of them and everyone stops talking. Right. So that's what happens. Now, the reason I'm so concerned about something like cancel culture or whatever you want to call it. I mean, when you give that inch on free speech because it sounds so good, we're just going to stop hate speech that really powerful group starts to infringe on more and more of culturally say, you're going to be punished culturally for this and this and this because now all of this counts as hate speech. What happens is you dismantle the top and the top is where, as I said, that's where we're collectively smarter than the average human at the bottom we're collectively dumber than the average, and remember that we're on this boat.
Jamie Wheal: Yes. Wisdom of crowds versus murderous [inaudible 01:09:56], right?
Tim Urban: Yeah. Yeah. And we're headed towards this good future, this bad future. And my point is the only thing that can get us to the good future on that boat is this collectively really smart, giant we can form. Free speech is that giant brain. So when you infringe on it, you are literally shutting down our ability to be collectively brilliant in a way that can get us to a good future and you're making us into a collectively... If all the people are just thinking these things in their head or in small groups, the collective becomes very dumb, suddenly very, very dumb and that's going to drive us right off a cliff.
Seriously, our species with all this technology, that's exploding. We have to have our wits about us and this is my concerns when I see, I don't care who it is it's not political if the pro-lifers are doing it if the pro-choices are doing it if the social justice people are doing it if the Trumpers are doing it, whoever is infringing on our ability to, for not the whole country plenty of people will go to echo chambers great. If it's infringing upon the people who want to be in the marketplace of ideas, it's making that [inaudible 01:10:59] space for anyone. We have to stop it because it's an existential threat. That's how I am.
Finding Common Ground Between Different Opinions
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Well, you just laid that really beautifully the level of the game and people being able to have basically it's strong opinions loosely held, right? And that is actually literally the founding premise of homegrown humans in this podcast, which was how do we go from something like the new atheist where people were often kind of entrenched. There was sort of the straw man of superstitious old religion, and then the smart new people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and you're just kind of beating the living out of the straw men to the new Platonist of like people who are still using reason, ration, logic, evidence, but also have some connection beyond their own fixed position maybe even some lived experience of the mystery or the numinous or the sublime, something more that kind of just lets the game be a little bit more fun and creative. And one of the litmus actually for the founding of this program was Sam Harrison, Jordan Peterson's debate, right. Where they famously, Sam was taking the rational materialist reductionist point of view quite strongly and Jordan was taking the sort of Western...
To this point of view quite strongly and John was taking the sort of Western archetypal union, Mr. Christian perspective. They were just talking past each other all night and I think that to your point about your audience and viewers, who's drawn to these kind of conversations, really I think a meaningful chunk of the audience wasn't in that cage fight. They were both rooting for them to get beyond the antithesis to a synthesis. You're like, "Come on guys, there's a both end here, we're all rooting for you guys to name this out loud so we can be along for that ride."
And then Sam and I were exchanging a few emails during his desktop on the other side of the spectrum with Ezra Klein at Vox, right? Where, that went quite sideways. And I was like, "Sam, you may be winning the war, but you're losing battles here." Right? Because Ezra is quite polished in his non-violent communication inclusive languages, that isn't actually coming across as more reasonable and most of your listeners, watchers, viewers, aren't tracking the substrate that you're taking these definitive stands on now. And I don't know when it was maybe last year, back in another time, maybe a year ago, that was you in LA at our mutual friend's summit series folks, facilitating a conversation with Sam. So I'm curious as to you bringing this ethos to that conversation. How did that go? What was your experience? And were you guys able to find some synthesis and some common ground beyond the fixed positions?
Tim Urban: I've talked to Sam about this a few times. We're pretty on the same page about a lot of stuff here. I think he's very clear-headed about this kind of topic, personally. And he's, look, he's balancing. There's no real perfect way to be out there talking about this right now. You're going to do some stuff that might hurt your ability to reach people in the future. No matter what position you do, you're going to kind of be betraying some other position. So it's really, really hard. But that conversation I had with him, we got kind of sidetracked in talking about psychedelics for a long time, which was a lot of fun. We didn't really have time to get into some of this stuff, but...
Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Urban: But when I listened to some of these different things with Sam, I tend to feel like he's right. He reminds me a little of Elon Musk in that if something is not accurate or something is not accurate about them or a point isn't being made, they won't let it go. And I can understand them because I'm kind of like that too. It's a perfectionist thing in some ways that I know sometimes just isn't that wise in how it comes off, you said. But there's just, there actually, I think there's a ton of integrity and actually having a ton of integrity, a perfectionist level, can actually be maybe a detriment if you go to too perfectionist with it, because you will just, instead of just sometimes saying just let this go or just agree to disagree on something, it's "No, you'll have to make it clear that the specific thing that you were being accused of is not exactly correct, and it's actually not what you were..." And I don't know.
On the other hand, I think that Sam is popular because he actually does have a lot of people who listen hard. They're pretty clear-headed and they appreciate that. They see, someone like you, you just defined Sam's thing with Ezra and you knew that he was making some good points, but you were talking about how he might be perceived to others. But I think a lot of his listeners are like you, so they also see what you see. And even if they think that he she's going too far, he's being too combative. They know he's well-intentioned and they know he's making good points. And I think that's all Sam really cares about is that the people, they're really smart, clearheaded, high integrity kind of listeners of him, of his, that they get [inaudible 01:15:55] understandable [inaudible 01:15:58]. And I think that's a reasonable stance.
Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative). [crosstalk 01:16:02] Absolutely.
Tim Urban: You're not going to become Carl Sagan level that way. You're not going to become a worldwide, kind of mythic kind of thinker that modern intellectual God, if you're like that, you're going to have too many enemies. You can become a pretty, Sam has a pretty huge following and think that he's chosen to dig really hard into that group rather than try to please everybody, which I think is we need people like that.
How Can We Be Better Humans
Jamie Wheal: Well, I mean, and it's interesting when you, you mentioned Carl Sagan, you mentioned even your own path from deep dive, big thing, stuff into something, more political and volatile you've tipped your hat. I mean, obviously Bret Weinstein has been through the meat grinder of the culture wars as well, even though as an evolutionary biologist, you would think he would be somewhat removed. Yuval Harari has definitely gone out of his lane of medieval military history, into broad scope, a history of civilizations and now into increasing forward looking and politically charged topics themselves.
So there seems to be this inexorable poll to your point about the waterfall, the pending waterfall of anybody who believes that they are seeing things unfolding in real time to start taking stands. And if it means getting out of your safe lane, if it means putting your head on the chopping block and knowing you're going to get clipped from, I mean, I'm always baffled by you articulate an argument. And I always expect the folks holding the antithetical argument to the ones you're defending against. And as often as not these days, you're actually getting clipped by the people you thought were behind you. And on the same side like that, like the folks on the opposite team may or may not even come across your stuff, or they may not choose to go deeply enough, or they take you as the healthy opposition, whatever it's the knee capping and the shifts of the ribs from what you thought was on the good, the true, and the beautiful team that is baffling.
So you just mentioned, this is I'd love to kind of wrap this up big picture. It was, let's just take a weight, but why, right? So you mentioned that yours and Sam's conversation got sidetracked, but it was also Sam quite publicly after the fact, described that he had undergone some relatively high dosage suicidal experience last year that I don't think it was quite the Terence McKenna five grams in silent darkness, but I think it was at least three. It may be a bit more. And at least for some period, and maybe persistently since his perspectives has felt a little softer and a little bit more inclusive versus maybe some of the pitched battles he was getting entrenched in, you've covered the ground, you've got Fermi's paradox. What is intelligence in the universe? You've got the rise of AI, you've got the story of us and how do we go from impulsive, genetically programmed monkeys to the better angels of our nature, right? So what is your sense of where are we going and what's possible for humanity?
Tim Urban: So my favorite thing to write about is what's possible, right? I really like optimistic guy. I get it. I'm excitable about stuff. I'm not typically focusing on what sucks or what could go wrong. That's just not my nature. So my nature is to discuss the big, the stuff is, I said, sometimes I'm talking about procrastination or relationships. That's a different kind of category, but one of the things I really love getting into is just what is reality here? What like the Fermi paradox is that's such a fundamental question. Are we one of billions of this? Or are we legitimate? Potentially the only example, are we some unbelievable freak miracle that happened? That's really kind of important thing for us to figure out. I mean, if we can, it either way, it's just so fun to talk about.
I love talking about AI, but the existential part is scary, but what I really like talking about is what could AI do? That's great. What could genetic engineering do? That's great. The life extension, what could nanotech do? How could we cure all these things, cancer, poverty, fix climate change. That's how I like to think, right? So I see kind of this, look, if you took someone from 2000 years ago, or even 300 years ago, and you brought them to a modern day city, and you put them in a small middle-class apartment, and you just let them, they would say, I, this is Utopia. I'm in heaven. They had never seen the technology, the life expectancy, it just like one thing after another would just be like, they would be in this magical world where everything, all these are problems are solved and everything is see, right? So, I think that something like Utopia, I don't think, I don't, I think that it's all relative. Our reality is someone else's Utopia from the past.
Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Tim Urban: And I think there's a future that would seem genuine Utopia to us. If we went there, we'd say, Oh my God, people don't die in voluntarily anymore. Oh my God, there's no chronic pain anymore. Oh my God, no one needs to lose. Loses, loved ones anymore. No one is in poverty in the world. Everyone has enough, has enough. Stuff like this. That's to us seems like impossible. It's magic. It's not. Enough technology just seems like magic. So I'm picturing this world and I'm so excited about it. And I think maybe, maybe the people alive today, we might be, it's happening fast enough. Like we might get there, if we get there, we could be over there for a long time, right? So crazy stuff, right? This is my favorite topic. And yet, on the way there, I see it ahead, and then I see there's somewhere, there's this foggy thing going on here. And I know there's a waterfall and it makes me so stressed out. I'm like, Oh my God, we can not go off this waterfall right now. We've got to get there.
And so, that's why I stopped all that stuff. When I was writing about to take a pause, to say, look, none of the limiting factor on everything else I could write about is this problem, which is that our society is drifting downwards. We're falling off the wagon. At the worst time. Technology is exploding. Even the bad guys in the world, they're going to have way more power soon technology that's coming.
We need to be wise about what's the right way to handle genetic engineering. You know, we can't have that become politicized. And which loses all there's those thinking anymore. There's two dumb giants now arguing. There's no more higher intelligence brain. So I think that, I don't want to, look, it's not fun for me to write controversial stuff and have haters in my comment section. And now I have haters. I never had no haters for real, right around procrastination in astronomy. Like there's not no haters there. So it's not fun. It's not my, I don't, I actually don't find it that interesting.
Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Urban: But it's a little, when I talked to my friends about relationships, it's the same thing. This is the stuff I talked to my friends about it. And we try to say, what is the real problem? And I said, I need to go public with this. And just try to at least do my part to have, cause it's, if I can get my corner of the internet, that those people, at least some of them receptive, and they can have a better language to talk about this. And they can be more convincing in their arguments because the framework that they've gotten from this series in their own head, this framework that I've spent so long developing, if I can put that in people's heads and that can help them think clearly and see what's going on more clearly and articulate their ideas better. Then that's the highest impact that can make right now for about this fork. I would love to know, I'd love to feel like we're not headed towards the bad fork anymore.
Jamie Wheal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Urban: And just never. So I just wanted to do it once. I probably will not write about the stuff again, getting in there, kind of saying it wants, it's a framework I think can be used again. And again, again, this vertical access, which then, as I think people could, that framework is going to, I don't think it's just really relevant to this time. So I think that framework, I put it out there and now I can go back and write it by my neck. I'm going to write another book after this, and it's going to be the other kind of books and the fun book about the Utopia, and it's going to, I can't. And that the little kid in me is so excited so forward by writing about politics and stuff, but I have to, and the thing is the people on the bottom of the ladder who were religious, they will see me as I'm, oh, I have an agenda, political agenda. I really am.
I'm really a conservative doing this, or I'm a progressive that's just trying to tell, say orange man, that in different words, whatever I'll get it's just like, that's just not what I'm doing. I truly think that this particular political squabbles pale in comparison to the cliff, we might go off. That's a little like the white walkers, you're going to be, can squabble all the political things. I see them like squabbles and King's landing. It's like, no, no, no, none of this matters if the white walkers get over that wall. So that's how I feel. I'm just like, you can accuse me of being, you really want the throne? I'm, no, no, I'm not fighting in this King's landing. I just want to talk about the white walkers. So, that's why free speech is if the white walkers to me.
Jamie Wheal: Or at least the ultimate battle among the kingdoms and the final distraction that it feels like what you're describing is, and I've been personally experiencing this for the last 18 to 24 months as well, but there's the sort of coming alive arc of like expansion of possibility, curiosity, growth, the sort of that beautiful meadow you were describing right there's a future. We could all make it to both individually and our lives, fulfillment, connection, learning, and growth, but also civilizationally, and then there's the staying alive arc and that's about the dwindling options and choices. And we sort of to use your kind of, drawing, it's like, there's these two intersecting ox, and we're right at that crossroads right now, torn between coming alive and staying alive. And, and it, there's that E.B. White, the guy who wrote Charlotte's Web, he said, every morning, I wake up torn between my desire to save the world and save it. And that makes it hard to plan my days, but then I realized that in fact, the savoring must come first because if I, if there wasn't the will to savor, there would be nothing left to save.
Tim Urban: I think a lot of people focus on the existential threat when they write about it, how bad could AI get, or how bad could a political war, a civil war get. And that's scary. That's basically trying to motivate with fear. And I think that we should do a little more, this is what I want to write in this next write, I think we should do a little more of what get everyone really, really yearning for that world we could have. Maybe 30 years from now, things technology is moving real quickly. Can we, 20, 30, 40 years from now, that's fair. It's this thing. We can see it over the horizon. There's a bright area over this horizon that we could get, we could go to. They could be so excited about that. They, it makes their heart ache to think that we're going to fall off and we're never going to get there. That's a little bit how I see it. So, that's what makes me emotional. It's not, oh, we might all die. Well, that was the plan. Anyway, no, we might get there. There's this thing we could have. And we're so close.
Think about it ever since that we know, agriculture revolution, we've been humanity without realizing it has been working towards this meadow, I think. And man, we're so close. And this is when you realize that. I think about Christianity, I have more respect for it than I used to. Cause I'm just like heaven and hell. Yes, you're taking it literally. Then that to me is silly at least. But forwardly, I do think that our current world would seem heaven to someone from 10,000 BC. And so I think that heaven is real in terms of our expectations. I think there is a heaven. Something that would seem having to us that we can genuinely get to. And I think that the world that seems hell is very possible too, when you only grew up in good times. It's really hard to imagine that you could live in really, really, really, really, really bad times, but you could, every time there's been bad times and the people who went into it didn't think it was possible. So, it's that combo, it's pretty good incentive right there, but the possibility of losing heaven and the scariness of hell. So.
Jamie Wheal: Well, Tim, I mean, and thank you, thank you for signposting the way, to that adjacent possible, one hilarious and informative stick figure at a time.
Tim Urban: I appreciate having me on to rent for a little while.
More About Tim
Jamie Wheal: And actually, I mean you mentioned two books in the works. Do you have working titles for them so people can track them?
Tim Urban: No. The second book is a German at the moment. It's just something I wanted to do. So we'll see, I've just finished this one first, this one I have to get out there and then get off of this toxic topic and move on to fun, exciting things again. `
Jamie Wheal: Nice.
Tim Urban: So...
Jamie Wheal: [crosstalk 01:29:16] I mean the same thing, same thing. I mean, I was in the midst of writing the sequel to Stealing Fire, which is the book I wrote a few years ago. It's about to come out now and just somewhere last summer, I had to just stop and write this thing called Born Again Patriots, which was this centrist position of why is the left conceded all the good value words, like honor duty cards, sacrifice patriotism. Why have they just conceited those to the alt-right, those are the rooty ones and you've got intersectionality and privilege and shitty complex non rallying ones.
Tim Urban: [crosstalk 01:29:45] Divisive.
The Difference Between Patriotism and Nationalism
Jamie Wheal: Let's get back to the double down on the infinite game and the difference between patriotism and nationalism.
Tim Urban: So John hide thing, common humanity activism versus common enemy. And it's like the common enemy activism when it succeeds, it kills a ton of people. That's what it does. It's primitive minded thinking, common humanity activism, look at every sentence out of Martin Luther King's map, basically, and Mandela and JFK. And they're great leaders these are mythic figures for a reason because they were a great. There's not really many mythic figures I can think of who are just revered universally, who were common enemy activists who say, these are the bad. They were all saying that the line between good and evil cuts between all, cuts through every human and that they spoke with, they spoke about love basically in different words. And
Jamie Wheal: [crosstalk 01:30:42] That's such a graha, it's that, I mean, you've got, Gandhi's even formulation of that. He didn't even like the wording non-violence because it included the word violence. He's wish there was something better. So he had such a graha and then King took it into soul force, but better angels of our nature [inaudible 01:30:57]
How to Love Your Enemy
Tim Urban: [inaudible 01:30:58], again I'm going to forget her name. But she said, I think she was the provost at Yale for a while, but she said, "When my enemies try to draw a circle to exclude me, I'll draw a bigger circle to include them." And right there, who's not going to follow her anywhere, right? Who's not going to follow her, who is not, and it makes everyone want to hug and forgiven you just hear that, it's obviously the kind of attitude
Jamie Wheal: [crosstalk 01:31:27] You had that little vignette in your, I don't know what your blue boxes are, but I read one of them, which was your plane ride with the bitchy woman beside you, right? That motion, right? Of how you went from antagonism to inclusion, just because one person played the vulnerability card.
Tim Urban: Cause all of a sudden I was, Oh, it's just a proof of this delusion. And I'm, Oh, she's a full human being so mean, well, human being, why would I do that? You know? And then you realize that I was in this delusion before where she was not a human, I hate her [inaudible 01:31:58] being a random woman. I don't know, with family and, and like fears and hopes and dreams. Why would I hate this? It makes no sense. And all it takes is one thing. And it's the primitive mind switches for me. I went up, my psyche went up the psyche ladder for that moment.
Jamie Wheal: [crosstalk 01:32:13] It's beautiful. Right? I mean, on, in the level of the story, you were ass hot and she played the venerability card, but in you, remembering and drawing that insight and then sharing it with hundreds of thousands, more people, you played the vulnerability card and then leveraged her insight for a huge ripple effect.
Tim Urban: I hope.
Jamie Wheal: Truly I mean, you, I'm always cynical about Instagram memes and kindness, multiplies blahby blah, and random acts of kindness. And that those sort of things, but you're, no, that's a super simple example where that woman reconnecting with her humanity, sharing it with you and then unbeknownst to her, you happen to have an audience to built in and then you also chose you're the one just, Oh, that bitch and moved on with your day, you noticed it. And then you instantiated it into an artifact. And then that ripple effect, abs, I mean, it's landing from, it landed for me today. Right? So that is neat. Now that is some nonlinear shit when people do source from soul force.
Tim Urban: That's why these leaders are so mythic because they, the ripple effects of their words. They actually lift giant societies for decades on end up on the psyche ladder a bit, it's a huge deal. And likewise, a leader like Hitler, Mao, these common enemy leaders, they bring when they ripple effect for a long time, bringing a common enemy mindset into people, whether it's the people who hate them or the people who love them. So, we got to have this vertical access in our heads, I think, and then we can have somewhere to go where to, where to point our efforts.
Jamie Wheal: Well dude, if you, if you're open to it, I'd love to send you a galley of the book that I'm just finishing right now. It's with it's with Harper Collins and it basically is the attempt is, is for it to be basically the whole thesis of the book is what would happen if IDEO attempted to design a resilient culture going forward. So it's saying meaning 1.0, organized religion collapsed and we've, and that's giving us fundamentalism meaning 2.0 neo-liberalism has collapsed and that's giving us nihilism. And how do we reconstruct the middle using design thinking principles of like neuro anthropology. So...
Tim Urban: That was fantastic. I'd love to read it. Thank you.
Jamie Wheal: Oh, no, dude. I mean, I mean, I mean, I was so stoked. I mean, I was, I was geeking on all the fun things you have always talked about, but the fact that you were also just falling on the sword of the sociopolitical as well and noticing how many folks were tracking that are friends, colleagues, other guiding lights. I mean, we're definitely playing in the same space and I'm super psyched that we got to connect, man.
Tim Urban: Totally me, too.
Jamie Wheal: All right, man. Well, have a great weekend.
Tim Urban: All right. See you later.
Jamie Wheal: Cheers.
Tim Urban: Bye.
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