What did I learn today?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

Tyler Cowen shares a partial list of his intellectual practice strategies:

1. I write every day. I also write to relax.

2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own. I recommend this for most of you.

3. I do serious reading every day.

4. After a talk, Q&A session, podcast — whatever — I review what I thought were my weaker answers or interventions and think about how I could improve them. I rehearse in my mind what I should have said. Larry Summers does something similar.

5. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to crack cultural codes. I view this as a comparative advantage, and one which few other people in my fields are trying to replicate. For one thing, it makes me useful in a wide variety of situations where I have little background knowledge. This also helps me invest in skills which will age relatively well, as I age. For me, this is perhaps the most importantly novel item on this list.

6. I listen often to highly complex music, partly because I enjoy it but also in the (silly?) hope that it will forestall mental laziness.

7. I have regular interactions with very smart people who will challenge me and be very willing to disagree, including “GMU lunch.”

8. Every day I ask myself “what did I learn today?”, a question I picked up from Amihai Glazer. I feel bad if I don’t have a clear answer, while recognizing the days without a clear answer are often the days where I am learning the most (at least in the equilibrium where I am asking myself this question).

9. One factor behind my choice of friends is what kind of approbational sway they will exercise over me. You should want to hang around people who are good influences, including on your mental abilities. Peer effects really are quite strong.

10. I watch very little television. And no drugs and no alcohol should go without saying.

11. In addition to being a “product” in its own right, I also consider doing Conversations with Tyler — with many of the very smartest people out there — to be a form of practice. It is a practice for speed, accuracy in understanding written writings, and the ability to crack the cultural codes of my guests.

12. I teach — a big one.

Physical exercise is a realm all of its own, and that is good for your mind too. For me it is basketball, tennis, exercise bike, sometimes light weights, swimming if I am at a decent hotel with a pool. My plan is to do more of this.

Here are a few things I don’t do:

Taking notes is a favorite with some people I know, though my penmanship and coordination and also typing are too problematic for that.

I also don’t review video or recordings of myself, for fear that will make me too self-conscious. For many people that is probably a good idea, however.

I don’t spend time trying to improve my memory, which is either very bad or very good, depending on the kind of problem facing me. (If I need to remember to do something, I require a visual cue, sometimes a pile on the floor, and that creates a bit of a mess. But it works — spatial organization is information!)

I’ve never practiced trying to type on a small screen, though probably I should.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Mostly a waste of time masquerading as exercise.

    If you want to become smarter, prove yourself wrong, and find out what how you generated the wrong belief so you don’t do it again. While writing out an opposing view may be part of such a thing, it is neither necessary nor a sufficient part of this complete breakfast.

    Science. Literally nobody understands science. Falsification 101. Come on.

    Listening to ‘difficult’ music is about as useful as watching someone else do a difficult lift.

    Reading is not work unless you use it prove yourself wrong.

    Doing Q&As like that will teach non-transferable domain knowledge about debate and rhetoric, not general processing ability.

    Trying to crack cultural codes will give you domain knowledge about cultural codes.

    Disagreeing with someone is useless unless they win sometimes, you change your mind, and you figure out how you made the mistake in a general sort of way.

    Working on improving your memory absolutely works (most likely via chunking) and Cowen is absolutely below the necessary mind-strength to hold reality-like ideas in his mind.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    If you’re wrong and it matters, the universe itself will prove you wrong. It’s better to take the hint early rather than late, to minimize the harm. I attend to the faintest stirrings of cognitive dissonance. Since I adopted this approach, the universe has been much kinder to me than it once was.

    (One of the smartest people I know is dead wrong about certain things and doesn’t care to take in new information or reconsider his view in the slightest. You could call him closed-minded. But here’s the thing: he’s only wrong about things that don’t directly impact him. Things he can afford to be wrong about.)

    Why write out an opposing point of view when there are plenty of motivated people to do it for you? Better: read an opposing point of view.

    Domain knowledge about cultural codes is plenty useful in and of itself, if the code is a culture you need to interact with.

    Rhetoric is also a plenty useful domain.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    The Jordan Peterson of economics.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Jordan Peterson is either overrated or underrated, depending on what your expectations are.

    I have moved on from following Jordan Peterson, but without any regret for the time I spent reading and viewing him. It’s important to know when you’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. Because there is always is one.

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