Tim Urban is a writer and author of the blog Wait But Why. He is the author of What's Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Tim Urban discuss how to develop strong productive habits; the human tendency towards “chronocentrism”; as well as how American society has become troubled and why finding real solutions will require courage.
The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Mounk: I’ve really looked forward to this conversation. I think about a third of the audience will be superfans of your writing, while the other two-thirds probably haven't seen it and so don't quite have a sense of the style and approach to it. But you have a way of really thinking through in a very simple and straightforward but deeply illuminating way, these big topics, many of which we'll cover today.
Explain to me your method. When you try to think through one of these big, thorny issues, how do you think about understanding it, coming up with your point of view, and illustrating it in such a way that really speaks to this massive audience that you've built?
Tim Urban: Basically, there's two phases. First I have to build up my own understanding. And then I have to figure out how to explain what I learned. I start with brute force: I'll just read a ton. I don't need to even evaluate the sources that much during this phase. I'll read Wikipedia, I'll read articles that come up. If I keep hearing about a certain book, I'll buy the book and skim through some of the chapters. If I really like it, I'll read the whole book. And what happens as I do this is the topic starts to clarify in my head, just the topic itself: what are the areas of understanding to learn? What do I keep hearing again and again? You start to just orient yourself. It takes a while. Early on, it can feel very upsetting and kind of daunting. But if you just keep going with that, before you know it, you start to really get it. Now you can say, “Okay, where are the holes in my understanding?” If I'm going to write a blog post, I might not go that deep, but if I'm going to write a much longer thing, or book chapter, or longer post, I'll go naturally, you know, read a bunch of books.
Now I understand the topic. And now I'm prepared to start going into phase two: how do I want to explain this? Most of what I learned will not make it into whatever I write, inevitably. Where I want to be, knowledge-wise, is I could write something and then the people who read it have a Q&A with me, and I can go into much more depth in the Q&A than I did in the blog, because I have a whole deeper level of understanding. You never want to be right at the edge. That's not a good feeling. And you're gonna miss some stuff, inevitably, because right at the edge you think you understand it better than you do. Then it's the challenge of outlining what is the story here, and how I can explain it to someone in a way where they can learn it faster than I just learned it. And how can I get in there the most interesting moments where the dopamine hit for me as I learned, so that the reader can really get the best of what I just did, and feel themselves oriented? So then I'll outline and then I'll write and then inevitably, as I write, I have to go and continue to do research.
Mounk: I've been following the blog for a long time, and so I sort of went back over the website in preparation for this conversation. Let's talk about some of the posts and articles that have just stuck in my mind over the years.
The natural place to start is procrastination. What's your two-minute insight about the structure of procrastination and what perhaps we can do to deal with it a little bit better?
Urban: What I've done in articles and talks is to tell my own story. And mine is that I have an Instant Gratification Monkey in my head who wants to maximize the ease and pleasure of the current moment at all times and does not understand the future or the past. And I have a Rational Decision Maker who wants to do what makes sense. And those are different parts of the brain, one is much more ancient and doesn't understand long-term plans, because it wasn't evolved in a time when we had civilization, when you needed to make long-term plans and have long-term projects. The other part of your brain can think in real time and actually does get the world we live in. So there's this conflict. And for the procrastinator, the monkey wins again and again. There's a lot of delusion that tomorrow will be better, but then the monkey wins again. And then comes the deadline, the scary freakout moment, and that's when the third character, the Panic Monster rushes in the room. And that's the one thing that scares the monkey away. When the Panic Monster comes in screaming, the monkey runs away. And now the Rational Decision Maker can frantically do a B-minus job on the thing that I'm supposed to be doing. It's a very miserable situation.
Mounk: I’ll just say that I find these three characters simple and straightforward. And there's a kind of tripartite structure (that, in some ways, goes back to Plato) that is just so evocative and so simple.
Urban: “Procrastination” is a Roman word. It means to put off until tomorrow. Which means that Julius Caesar was procrastinating. This is the human condition. It's a mismatch between the tool in our head, which was wired for a certain kind of tribal environment, where you have to hunt and gather, and the world we live in, which is an advanced civilization. I think that those characters apply to a lot of people. Now, some people have a different problem. Some are better at overpowering the monkey. Some people are worse than me, and when the Panic Monster comes in, the monkey is still not scared. So there's different balances of power, but the characters I think are pretty common. But the big question is what's the underlying psychology? And this is where I think you can't have a one-size-fits-all solution. Every person needs to think hard and do trial-and-error experiments of their own to see what might work for them.
This monkey lives by reward and punishment. And if you say, look, we're going to work really hard till 6pm or 3pm, or whatever it is, and then we're going to do something fun, really fun, you're gonna get a reward, you can get your dopamine hit, and you can start to train the monkey on that and there'll be a lot less resistance earlier in the day. Fun actually lowers resistance and recharges the system, for me. So this is something I've learned. And when I do talks on this, I'll go through some things that have worked for me. But I always encourage people to experiment. Because it's not that different from training a dog. The monkey is actually not that smart, you can outsmart it. But you have to get creative and try new things. You can't keep banging your head against the wall with the same failed thing and be delusional that it will somehow work tomorrow,
Mounk: There’s a small element of what you said that I found really interesting, which is that once you've been productive, the temptation is to just stay with it until you exhaust it. And that can be a failure mode. A lot of writers have a daily goal of 1000 words or something like that. But one interesting difference is that some writers say, “Look, I want to have at least 1000 words. And then if I have a productive day, I might write 2000 or 3000 words.” But some famous writer, perhaps Hemingway, said, “No, I write exactly 1000 words a day. And even if I'm really in the swing of things, and inspired, and I really feel like I could write 3000 words, I stop at 1000. Why? Because if you write until you're exhausted, or until your creative impetus is spent, you come in the next day and you need to build up the momentum from scratch.” But if you cut yourself off in the middle, then you come back the next day excited: you finally get to finish this thing where I felt like I had the energy. And so you come in with a very different kind of fresh energy. I feel that what you're saying is in conversation with that somehow.
Urban: We all grow up with: there's school, gotta suck it up. You got to do school. Bell 3pm. Freedom, right? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, TGIF freedom, right? Summer vacation, right? This is the same kind of structure: you have to do this, but then you're free. And now imagine, they said, “Oh, if you're really flowing, if you're doing well at school that day, you're just gonna keep going till 8 or 9pm. If you're having a good week, and you're really doing well, we're gonna come back to school on Saturday.” It would screw up all the psychology. And so that's what Hemingway (or whoever it was) is talking about. I totally agree with that.
I always thought I did school and I hated it. And I hated that structure. And I hated the Monday through Friday thing. But there's some wisdom to the yin-yang: I work, I play. Work. Play. It's not really up to you, it's this bigger thing. And I think there's something about, “I have to get to the 1000 word mark, and that's the bell, and then I'm free.” The monkey can get used to that and kind of fall into that rhythm. And it is hard when you're in a flow that is magical and you're thinking, “I could do so much more right now.” Yes, there is something you're going to lose by stopping. But you're going to gain a ton.
Mounk: Now that we've solved the listeners’ problem of procrastination, next question: how do you choose a career?
Urban: Well, imagine someone is single, and they would like to be married: And so they sit inside and they think about what person they want to marry. And that's what they do. They just sit there and they make spreadsheets and they research and they come up with a whole rubric. I think we'd all agree that's probably not the way you're going to find your life partner, sitting alone inside thinking about it and planning for it. You got to just go on dates, right? We don't know ourselves that well. We don't know what we like, and we're not that good at dating: we're not going to present our best selves on dates until we start to get better at this and get more confident. I would just tell someone: just go on dates. Tell your friends you want to be set up with people, go on the apps and meet people, go out to bars. Approach people in coffee shops, if you're that bold. Get as many first dates as you can, and then see what happens and try to be open-minded and don't judge too hard on the first date, because they might be being their best self either, right, whatever. I would say the same thing about a career, right? People in college toil over the tyranny of choice—
Mounk: “Do I want to be the CEO of Apple or do I want to be Senator?”
Urban: Yeah, or do I want to go and travel for my first five years after college? And then? Or do I want to start work in college? There's nothing obvious here. In today's world, you know, it's hard. There's so many opportunities, there's so many different ways you can go.
I think that, first of all, it’s just like meeting your life partner: you're not going to meet every single person on earth and be able to pick the best one for you, right? Inevitably, whoever you end up with, there's going to be 20 people out there who would have been a better match for you. It's just reality. You have to not be a perfectionist. Inevitably, you’re gonna try five or ten things, maybe two or four things, and try to find something that works really well for you. It's not your parents' generation, where you pick something at 22, and that's what you do till you're 65. Most people will try and do many different things.
This is a Steve Jobs metaphor: connect the dots, and you can't connect them forwards. You can look backwards and see the path you were led on. Your job is to pick a good next dot. And that doesn't have to be a perfect next dot. Maybe, seven dots later in 2040, you realize why this dot was actually something useful. Maybe you learned that was useful. You're gonna learn a lot about yourself, about the world, you're going to learn a skill. Maybe it's going to help with your network.
Those are the kinds of things I would say to someone who's struggling with the tyranny of choice.
Mounk: To have a successful career, it's really helpful if it's something you enjoy, right? No matter how smart you are, no matter how hard-working you are, no matter how good you are at beating your own tendency towards procrastination, if you go into a lucrative field that you just don't like, you're never going to be truly excellent at it. Whereas if you find a niche that is hard and competitive, but you really love it, and you actually excel at it, you're more likely to do well in the end. And it's hard to know what it is until you try it.
Urban: But it's also complicated, because you might like something in theory, but actually doing it is hard, and because you're not good at it yet, you don't like it. And after five years, you start to be really good, and now you like it. So you have to also judge what the dislike really is: is it that you're not good yet, but you have potential? Or is it that it's just not resonating with you, and even if you got to that next level, you don't think it would be fun?
Mounk: And you have to be able to have a realistic understanding of your own talents, which is a very hard thing to do. I once went to a talk by a famous writer. I won't say who it is. but he said, “My first two manuscripts were rejected by all of these publishers, and I was about to give up. But eventually I was discovered.” He’s since had a very, very successful career. Lots of TV shows based on his books and so on. And he said, “If you feel like you must do it, you should be a writer.” I thought that was terrible advice. Because, actually, there's some people who love writing but who could be perfectly happy with different careers, and there’s other people who truly love writing and the only thing that's gonna give them satisfaction in life is writing. And they’re just not good! They’re never going to get discovered, make a successful living, or even get the kind of recognition that they crave from other people reading their work and so on. So of course, you need to be passionate about what you do. That is, I think, incredibly helpful, even on a purely instrumental basis. But that kind of romanticized idea, I think, is just really, really dangerous.
You made this comparison between choosing your career and finding your life partner. And I think what's similar here is the sense of a momentous choice, and we don't have enough guidance as to how to do it, and people get in their heads about it, and they get confused. But what's a little bit different is that the kind of solution you just offered to the first problem doesn't seem to be available in the second problem, exactly; which is to say, if you choose a career, and you've been in the career for 10 or 15 years, you can actually change careers. And there's ways to sort of change your career bit by bit, right?
But once you've chosen a life partner, I think that the choice feels harder, because you can't drift into a different partner—obviously, you evolve and change and so on. But that's not quite the same, right?
Urban: Some people have a different philosophy: either they're not monogamous, or they are but they don't believe in marriage, and they don't intend to necessarily be in something forever. So I think for some people, it can be like that. But think for me and, it sounds like, you, and for most people in our society, maybe because it's kind of hardwired into us, or maybe because that's what our culture has trained us on, we do plan to date until we meet the one, and then get married and stay married forever. Right? I think there is something in us that just is hardwired for monogamy and, I think, we can be very happy with that. And I think something for me—
Mounk: —whatever the cause of it is, it's hard to overcome. When I was growing up in Germany, a lot of my parents' generation were part of the student movement in the ‘60s. And so they thought that marriage was this bourgeois institution of property that must be opposed and overcome. But eventually, they fell for somebody. And they ended up in these really long-term monogamous partnerships, but they could not admit to themselves that they had fallen into the bourgeois trap. And so they used this term, and I really have memories of acquaintances and family friends introducing their partner as their Lebensabschnittsgefährte, which must be the least romantic term I have ever heard. It translates as “life segment partner,” so they were trying to emphasize, “This is the woman I'm currently dating monogamously. But, like, she's not my wife.” But of course, these Lebensabschnittsgefährte were together from when they were 30 until they were 87.
Urban: I mean, maybe that helps them not freak out. Because it is, by far, the biggest decision of your life. It's a lot to handle for humans. I feel for people that struggle with this, because it is tough. If you're a perfectionist, there is always someone out there who might be better for you, and no relationship is perfect, so you're always looking at the things that are wrong. Maybe, with the next person, none of these things would be wrong. And that might be true, but maybe other things wouldn't be right.
There are ways when the career and the relationship thing are similar. And one of the tools I did for the career decision is I drew something I called a “yearning octopus.” I think it's a useful drawing. And basically, I say there's five tentacles (so it's really a “pentaplus”), and one is personal—achieving your potential self-esteem and identity. Another one is lifestyle—freedom, money and flexibility. And then another one is practical—you need to pay your debts and have food and security. Moral—are you helping people or changing the world for the better? And then social—what do other people think? Are you admired?
These are totally different things. And it's not that any of those are more worthy than the other. It all depends, but it's worth thinking about what part of it might just totally be driven by the personal tentacle, ignoring the others, or whatever.
For relationships, it's something similar, which is that there's different things you might want in a relationship: there's the sex life, lifestyle, doing stuff out in the world together, but it’s also how it is when you're on your couch alone watching TV. There's life philosophy. There's just general compatibility. Do you like the same people? Do you hang out with the same friends? When you're with people? Do you like them more or less than when you're alone? How do you fight? And how do you communicate? And are you on a trajectory that's getting better, or was the honeymoon phase a big part of why you liked each other? And once those chemicals are gone, there's something lacking? There are lots of different things going on. It's worth making your own octopus.
One thing I would look for—this is a red flag—and I've done this myself with both career and with relationships: There's a story you're always trying to tell yourself about this, and the goal is that the story is a good story. You're very proud of the story and feel good about it, but it's worth thinking, how much are you really talking yourself into this career? There's a story you're telling about why, actually, you don't want that thing you thought you wanted, and you really want this. And maybe that's true. Or maybe you are really, really trying to convince yourself of something.
You're not going to satisfy all the tentacles on the octopus, either with career or relationship, but at least you have a sense of what you're looking for.
Mounk: I want to get to two topics for the second half of the conversation. One is AI and then there’s how to think about this broader political moment.
Let me frame it a little bit broader: there's this sort of critique of what something is called “chronocentrism,” right? This idea that we always think our moment is special, that the things, trends, and changes that are going on in our time are, somehow, the most fundamental changes in the history of humanity. It's easy to be dismissive of the importance of technological developments in your time; famously, since beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there has always been this fear, for example, that new machines would somehow cause mass unemployment, but because they would replace the kind of jobs we have at the moment, people would no longer have jobs. And it was always hard to imagine the kind of jobs that people would do instead, what kind of demand for new jobs that would create.
And so from one perspective, it's easy to think about something like AI and say, “Well look, it seems like a tremendous technology. But isn't this just our tendency to somehow hype up the change that’s happening in our time? Is this really going to be a bigger transformation of human life than the printing press?” On the other hand, general artificial intelligence would be able to replace jobs across a huge swath of areas, in the way in which more narrow artificial intelligence that just automated a particular kind of task was not. All through this time, humans were the most intelligent creatures on Earth, and it is at least imaginable, and, perhaps likely, that within a very short span of time we will no longer be. So how do we sort of reconcile these conflicting instincts about how to make sense of the AI revolution that's taking place all around us?
Urban: I think the hard thing is that both stories will prove true in different ways. in some ways, this will repeat patterns of the past, people thinking that certain things are the end of days that turned out to be just the next version of something that's happened many times, people thinking that all the jobs are just gonna disappear without thinking about all the new jobs that will appear, and all the ways that AI will actually collaborate with humans as opposed to taking their jobs. We do have the tendency to overrate change. That said, there'll be an element of unprecedented change. This will be different than all the other times in history. And it's not naive to say that. It becomes very clear when you zoom out that this is an extremely special time. You're not naive to think we're special.
The one little metaphor I use is a 1000-page book. If all of human history were written as a 1000-page book, there’s 250,000 years or so of human history, so that means each page is 250 years, right? Four pages is a millennium. And the first 950 pages of that book, pre-agricultural revolution, is just hunter gatherer—95% of the book, nothing really happens. All the action is in the last 5% But even within there, I mean, from 10,000 BC to maybe 1000 BC cities start, and agriculture, and giant advances in writing (so, big things happen, but very slowly). You get to page 990—now you're 99% of the way through the book, you're at Herodotus and Aristotle, and then Jesus and Julius Caesar. We're in the last percent of the book. And then just the last page goes back to right before the Industrial Revolution, right before the US, the early 1770s. This page is officially different from all the others. If you look at the population, for 999 pages, the human population was below a billion; on this page, alone, we cross the 8 billion mark. I mean, we barely use any energy for the first 999 pages; the entire fossil fuels era is this last page with all the climate change implications that come along with it. Transportation was just horses, sailboats, and walking; now of course, you're going to the space station, right (and submarines, cars and planes). Communication: towards the very end, you had handwritten letters. Before that, you just had talking. Suddenly, we have FaceTime, right?
Nothing about this page is normal. It is all completely magical compared to the rest. So if you're an alien anthropologist reading this book, there's no way you're thinking, “Yes, this is just another page. These people also think their time is special.” No, you're thinking “What's about to happen to this species?” As you turn the page to page 1001, you're thinking “Shit’s going down—they're either going to be a hyper-technological, super-advanced long-term species or they're about to blow themselves up in some way or another.” So the people who roll their eyes at either the doomers or the people who say we're all going to be living for 1000 years—I think those people are actually not thinking hard enough. That said, some stuff will turn out to just be another advance. But AI is obviously a great candidate for being one of the crazy unprecedented things that really is not like anything else.
Mounk: As you referenced earlier, you started writing a blog post, I think, in June 2016 or something like that, and then it became a bigger blog post, and it ended up being a 300,000 word book and then you cut it down to 100,000 words. The title of it, very nicely, is What's Our Problem? It's a book about why our societies feel like they're pulling apart in certain kinds of ways. So, what's our problem? And how do we build healthier, saner societies?
Urban: First of all, I'm excited to talk to you about this, because you've been a thought leader in this area for a long time. Part of my research to understand what's going on in society is reading books on psychology, on history, on political science and stuff like that. But you also need to just look at what people are saying today and understand this culture war.
What's our problem? When I say “our,” I'm talking mostly about liberal democracies, and specifically, the US, but I think it applies to lots of liberal democracies. The first thing is to understand what liberal democracy is and what makes it work. This is an artificial machine we built to live inside of that people built a couple of hundred years ago, and they built it based on philosophy and trial-and-error that's been going on for thousands of years. And it's an ingenious invention. But the structure is not natural. it's important to just understand that this is something very special, it's artificial, and it's necessary. Human rights, individual rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech—these are all obviously very important, good things. Then you have these institutions that are built to uphold these things: the courts, the different branches of government, and then you have universities, research institutions. These are kind of the core kind of pillars that hold up the liberal house. And the strength of those pillars, and the strength of the house, comes from a bunch of people building shared beliefs in those values, and trust in the institutions, and a general kind of shared reality. That makes a very strong, very robust house, if you have that. But those things can deteriorate. And what you've seen is a very big shake-up of our environment in the last fifty years, but especially the last decade with the media landscape changing from broadcasting to the whole country to these narrowcast news stations that are entertainment more than news; social media algorithmically incentivizes outrage that is easy to manipulate. These things are creating separate realities for different political tribes. Because of things like the media, social media, and some structural changes to Congress, you end up with this binary culture war across the country.
I focus on two stories: the decline of the Republicans from Reagan to today, and how it's kind of the become the opposite of what they used to stand for; and then the social justice movement, specifically the woke movement, which I call “social justice fundamentalism,” which I think is the opposite of Martin Luther King, Jr.-style, gay-marriage movement style, women's suffrage movement-style, liberal social justice. The liberal social justice movements’ goal was: “We want more liberalism. We want this liberal house to be truly liberal, we want it to actually represent the things that it stands for. Let's make this house better.” The woke movement is a wrecking ball outside the house that says “Liberalism is bad, this house is bad, we need to knock it down. Because liberalism is bad, we also don't care about the tools of the house, the values; free speech is bad. Instead of using free speech to make the house better by using the tools of the house to fix the house, we're going to try to break the tools of the house and the house itself.”
I think the MAGA movement, in a lot of ways, is the same thing. Reaganism was the classic version of: “This is the best house ever, let's build the foundation and keep it strong.” And I think that the MAGA movement is saying: “This house is rigged and corrupt. And let's break the foundation of it.” When you're so caught up in the red-versus-blue color war, you stop worrying about the institutions, you stop trusting them, you stop trusting each other, and you fall for, “Oh, this movement wears blue, and I'm on the blue team. So it must be good.” And even though you believe in the house, you end up supporting the movement that's trying to break the house. And even though you think you're a conservative, you start supporting a red movement in a demagogue that's the opposite of conservative, because you're so caught up in this red-versus-blue color war that you totally forget what actually matters. You don't zoom out and say, “We're all pro-house before we are left or right.”
Mounk: Very briefly, because people should go and read the book, how do we repair the house? What do we do to actually put it back in order?
Urban: I think there's two buckets of change we can do. And I focused on the first one, because I think the second one requires a whole book of its own (stuff that people like Jonathan Haidt, Tobias Rose-Stockwell, Ezra Klein and other people have taken cracks at, which are specific structural changes). There's a lot of people that already agree that liberal democracies are good and that they're fragile and that we need to push back against a lot of the movements that are trying to break it down; that free speech is in peril and that we need to defend it (even if it's your tribe that's attacking it). There's a lot of people that have, like I said, fallen for the media narrative: they think wokeness must be today's version of social justice, or they think that Trump is actually trying to make America great again. And I don't think either of those are true. And so the first thing needs to be kind of an awareness movement, but you build awareness by speaking out, so you need courage. The people who are aware of this stuff need to speak out, that helps build awareness and reduces the burden of courage, because now more people believe it and it can spiral upwards: awareness and courage go together, courage builds awareness, awareness helps to make it require less courage and makes people want to be more courageous. But on the other hand, think we've fallen into the opposite spiral, which is the opposite of awareness and courage, which is like delusion and cowardice, right, and so cowardice makes people be quiet, which allows the demagogues and the demagogue movements to indoctrinate people, and so builds more delusion, and then delusion makes it scary. And I think we've fallen into this kind of spiral of silence and delusion. We need to get out of that. But the best thing you can do, if you do agree with me on these things, is to start speaking out to your friends, if you want to go public with it. It's hard, and you might suffer some consequences, but it's worth it. This is an existential threat.
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