Podcasts For Curious Minds

Familiar with podcasts? Then you’ll probably have heard the mistaken opinion that ‘there are too many people doing podcasts’, or worse, that ‘the ship has already sailed’. But what does ‘too many’ actually mean? And who cares about the first ship?

Podcasts may go back a decade or two, recently the scene has become far more colorful: the number of people listening to podcasts has skyrocketed, and, naturally, so has the choice.

I’m unsure of my introduction to podcasts (it may have been reading Tim Ferriss or James Altucher), but have been hooked now for a few years. I listen to them at every possible opportunity. I’m not one of those people who can read whilst walking, and few things match a distraction-free walk through nature, but 99% of the time, if I’m walking I’m doing so with a podcast. When I do DIY, there’s a podcast on. I used to do landscape gardening: podcasts make laborious work a breeze. They’re perfect in the gym. They’re an awesome alternative to benzodiazepines.

What follows are a few of the podcasts I’ve found particularly interesting.

After On (with Rob Reid)

What makes this podcast so outstanding to me is the brilliant production. No, not like that of, say,  a typical Freakonomics Radio episode: an auditory rollercoaster, electric, often overproduced (or at least distracting). But like that of Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor: there’s an awful lot going on but it just works. One may even call it beautiful, the way Rob has transforms incredibly dense, ‘too-hard’ bucket subjects into something far more understandable (and at minimum approachable to anyone with an ounce of curiosity) without any dumbing down.

Each episode is still unavoidably dense, so you will need patience and a considerable amount of mental bandwidth. It’s not one of those you can listen to a 2X. And you will want to listen to some episodes twice, thrice or more times over. Some timeless ones I really like are Don Hoffman on the nature of reality (#26), Richard Prum on the evolution of beauty (#33), Rodney Brooks and AI (#23), and Stewart Brand on de-extinction (#30). And so many more.

Rob himself is an original thinker, and the two episodes in which he is interviewed are also great. I typically skip preambles and addendums, but not for this podcast.

Conversations With Tyler (with Tyler Cowen)

I’ve written about in more depth about Cowen here. There’s apparently nothing he doesn’t have a thoughtful opinion on; that is, he’s a polymath. His style of interviewing is for me perfect for a podcast: questions that speak of serious research (he’s one of the most well read people I know of), a very precise and understandable manner of speech, and he’s as direct as they come. Past guests include Nobel laureate and behavioural economics legend Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Taleb, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison (episode in which Cowen is the interviewee; highly recommended!), Google founder Eric Schmidt, Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, Peter Thiel and many, many more fascinating minds.

Many of the conversations (most?) are also filmed and can be found on YouTube. One of the downsides to podcasts is the lack of intimacy: phone calls, skype calls, and even over-professionalised recording studios often hinder the creativity, zest and flow of conversation. Not a problem here: Cowen doesn’t do remote, and most shows are done in front of an audience.

The Joe Rogan Experience (with… oh)

If you’re reading this you’ve most likely heard of Joe Rogan. He’s considered somewhat of a leader in the podcast scene — and deservedly so: 100m + downloads per month; guests such as Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sir Roger Penrose, Russell Brand, George St-Pierre, Lance Armstrong, Mel Gibson, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson. As of today, a podcast with Dwayne Johnson is in the works, and Kanye West is going to happen any minute.

But this podcast isn’t really about the guests. The problem with the popular shows by Ellen Degeneres, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, etc., is the predictability: rehearsed questions and answers, focused on witty repartee, no time for conversation. A significant portion of JRE episodes exceed three hours. Rogan’s no-holds-barred, straightforward, opinionated style works because it stems from a voracious curiosity about the universe and everything within. Contrariwise, consider an interview involving panelists, journalists or politicians: too often their forcefulness comes from a desire to catch the person out, to appear superior, to ‘win’. Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman is the now classic example.

In Rogan’s own words, the ‘goal’ of each show is to have an interesting, thrilling, and most importantly, fruitful, conversation. The show ends when the conversation ends — not when the network slot is up, or because the audience has had enough, or whatever else. Guests have ample time to answer questions in a relaxed and nuanced manner; this has the advantage of allowing for not only full articulation of ideas and theories, but also their development, via better explanations. Conversation is the means by which we make progress. What is science but a giant conversation about the nature of reality — in which progress is made through not hope, prayer, bribery, coercion or violence, but the development of theories that have more explanatory reach?

Some JRE favorites of mine include the episodes with Dr Bruce Damer, Dom D’Agostino, Dr. Ben Goertzel, William Von Hippel, Randall Carlson, Dennis Mckenna, Jocko, some of the many with IDW members (especially those with Eric Weinstein), Donnie Vincent, Chris Hadfield, Katy Bowmen, Chris Hadfield, Dan Carlin, Graham Hancock, Russell Brand (some very entertaining ones), Dr Shawn Baker, Sebastian Junger, and Boyan Slat. Again, so many.

80,000 Hours (with Rob Wiblin)

A relatively new podcast, and much like CWT, it’s already a hit. Though I’ve only listened to 4-5 it’s a show highly recommended by people I admire (a great heuristic for tackling the inestimable volume of books and films on your todo list). Continuing with the Awesome Host theme, Rob Wiblin is the director of research at 80,000 hours: a typical organisation providing career advice in a very untypical manner, and worth checking out if you’re on the fence with regards to a career or just interested in the mind. On his website in a ‘favourite podcast’ list, Wiblin names at least three I found to be very stimulating and worthy another listen: Bryan Caplan on the pointlessness of most education, Tara Mac Aulay on changing the world really, and Prof Will MacAskill on moral uncertainty and so much more.

Not dissimilar to this show is The Psychology Podcast (with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman), which I enjoy just as much. Some worthy listens: Eric Turkheimer (#88), Max Lugavere (#122), Melissa Dahl (#119), Michael Steger (#136), Robert Green (#149), and Steve Stewart-Williams (#147).

The Knowledge Project (with Shane Parrish)

Parish is the person behind the very popular and quite brilliant Farnham Street blog. This show retains the fs philosophy but stands deservedly on its own. It’s one of those I get excited for every time the red thumb lands in my feed. Parish has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge (he’s what Tyler Cowen would call an infovore, but a piggish one), so naturally the guests range from poker experts, billionaire investors, wine connoisseurs and Athenian tour guides, to esteemed philosophers and teachers, (very) high-profile CEOs, the wives of important politicians, frontline FBI negotiators and top surgeon-cum-best-selling-authors. The questions are typically pertinent to the guests domain, but Parish doesn’t ask surface questions. The format as with all of these podcasts is a longform conversation with little editing, therefore there’s plenty of time to get in the weeds, indulge in digressions, ask about current issues, and so on.

I loved the episodes with Rory Sutherland, Naval Ravikant, Patrick Collison, Tobi Lütke, Tyler Cowen, Margaret Heffernan, Ray Dalio and Ed Catmull. The one with Adam Robinson is also a gem.

The Long Now Seminars (by the Long Now foundation; hosted by Stewart Brand)

The Long Now foundation is doing work that many folks would consider ‘wacky’. How does the de-extinction of wooly mammoths sound? It certainly sounds insane. But the methodology behind it, no so. (If you’re interested in learning about this quite extraordinary project I’d suggest you listen to Tim Ferriss’ episode with Stewart Brand, or if you really want to go deep, his podcast with Rob Reid on After On.) Other projects of the Long Now include the Rosetta project (an effort to preserve all languages susceptible to extinction between 2000 and 2100), and a 10,000 year old clock (backed by Jeff Bezos amongst many others).

Each month they host seminars revolving around the critical theme that is long-term thinking. These are typically live streamed on longnow.org and later uploaded in HD video for LN members. Thankfully they’re also sent to the podcast realm. As you can imagine the past guest list is fascinating. I very much liked the recent talk by Julia Galef about living by the uncertainty principle. Other engrossing talks include those with the futurist and polymath Kevin Kelly, Brand himself (most notably the ones about ‘pace layers thinking’ and de extinction), scientist Geoffrey West, Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia founder), Charles Mann, Craig Venter, Edward Wilson, Matt Ridley, and Tim O’Reilly.

On Being (with Krista Tippett)

Tippett’s brilliance as an interviewer is evidenced by the uncertain, often hesitant, and almost diffident, manner in which she converses, which to me speaks not of unhealthy ignorance or insecurity or stupidity but of a very deep effort to get closer to that thing that, as elusive and complicated and hard as it may be, always has been and always will be a worthy goal: namely the truth.

Too often, ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ are considered symptoms of ignorance, or incomplete or false understanding, or as evidence that ‘this person doesn’t have a clue’; rarely are they taken as proof that a person has a healthy but loose grip on what they’re thinking because, well, they are fallible humans just like everyone else; rarely are they taken as signs that a person is trying to work something out. But this is precisely what they are! The belief that intelligence (or smartness, knowledge, or whatever) must accompany dogmatic certainty, authority, verbal fluency, an impressive vocabulary, equations, or worst of all, that it must make sense, is simply wrong. Wrong. Hence when I hear someone like Krista Tippett, Patrick Collison, Nassim Taleb, Jordan Peterson, Elon Musk, my professor, taxi driver, my neighbour, or anyone else, hesitating, pausing, stumbling in speech, or the like, I know that it probably isn’t stupidity I’m witnessing but an effort to grasp a better, more precise explanation. Certainly these efforts don’t always succeed, and sometimes hesitancy is symptomatic of a lie; but more often than not the former is at least partially true and the latter completely untrue. And you already know I know none of this for sure.1

Anyhow, there are two versions of each On Being episode: the raw, unedited recording including hellos and all, and the radio-fit produced version. The latter has the advantage of being shorter, more ‘entertaining’, a better short-term use of time, of having music, of being free of reference errors and verbal slips, and includes some additional words from Tippett. But I love the raw recordings. Take your pick.

The central theme, if there is one, is philosophical discussion about what it means to be human(e), which naturally entails deep discussion about meaning, responsiblity, social cohesion and transformation, individuality and self-improvement, and so on. These discussions take the form of a friendly but fruitful dialect, captivating stories, and touching anecdotes. One thing unique about this show is the regularity of passage readings of the guest’s work: Tippett will often read a passage that spoke to her and then ask the guest what they mean by phrase X, or why they wrote it, and so on. It’s always interesting to hear an author elaborate on how or why they wrote a certain passage or chapter (as opposed to why they wrote the book, which almost always gets a rehearsed answer), and if their sentiments have shifted since.

Episodes that stand out: Carlo Rovelli, Frank Wilczek (both Physicists), Maria Popova (brain behind brainpickings.org), Kevin Kelly, Daniel Kahneman, Parker Palmer, Matthieu Ricard, Alain de Botton, Paulo Coelho, Adele Diamond, Jennifer Michael Hecht (highly recommended), James Moore on Darwin, Ed Husain, Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder, Keith Devlin, David Sloan Wilson, Martin Rees, B.J. Miller, Atul Gawande, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cory Booker, Seth Godin, and Eugene Peterson. The 2-3 part series on Einstein (‘Einstein’s Ethics’ and ‘Einstein’s God’, I believe) are also very good indeed.

The Tim Ferriss Show

In a recent episode with Tim, Patrick Collison spoke of the foundational influence Tim’s show has had on the podcast scene, stating ‘…there’s a lineage of podcasts that can be traced back to this one’. I agree completely. I’m almost certain it was Ferriss that got me hooked on podcasts, and I suspect I’m not the only one. If so, there’s also a lineage of podcast fans.

The world-class performers being deconstructed in the show’s early days were centered around domains in which Ferriss knows a lot: health and fitness, writing/books, and business/investing/technology. The first hundred episodes or so featured some highly respected names: investors like Chris Sacca and Naval Ravikant; important business figures like Reid Hoffman, Peter Diamandis, Brian Johnson, Phil Libin, Matt Mullenweg, Peter Thiel and Ed Catmull; semi-retired entrepreneurs like Derek Sivers and James Altucher; internet writers like Seth Godin and Maria Popova; technology legend Kevin Kelly; Terminator (really); and leaders in the health and fitness scene such as Kelly Starrett, Pavel Tsatsouline, Charles Poliquin, Dr Rhonda Patrick, and Dr Peter Attia. These few(!) examples are absolute steals, and I’ve returned to most of them at least once by now.

If you’ve read any of Ferriss’ books you’ll know that his interests are far and wide and esoteric. Hence it’s not by chance that as the years have rolled on, the guest list becomes more intriguing; the next episode could be with a psychonaut, neuroscientist, movie director, former marine commando, some wacky chemist, a hollywood superstar, multi billionaire, struggling startup founder, a game prodigy, an astrophysicist, athlete, an upcoming politician, or Jerzy Gregorek.

Recently Ferriss has put a lot of effort into changing (largely misinformed) perception about psychedelics. On this, I recommend the episodes with Michael Pollan, James Fadiman, and Stan Grof.

Other absorbing conversations include those with: Kyle Maynard, Robert Rodriguez, A.J. Jacobs, Jerrod Carmichael, Shay Carl, Rick Rubin, David Heinemeier Hansson, Chris Young, Jamie Foxx, Jocko (highly recommended; this is Jocko’s first public interview, and is the podcast that seeded the Jocko empire2), and Anna Muira-Ko.

Also great about this show — and unique — is the different formats and segment additions experimented with. The drunk-dialling episodes are worth a listen, as are those titled ‘[person name] Distilled’. Occasionally Ferriss will have guests do a bonus episode in which they only answer audience questions: they’re particularly great when those questions pertain to the original show. Podcast fans will also by now be familiar with ‘rapid-fire questions’: another lineage trace point.

Take note that this is a shamefully incomplete list. I’ve tried to distill it down to some that I think have had a significant influence on my thought, but I’ve left a ton of fantastic shows out, such as: Think Again (by Big Think), The Rubin Report (with Dave Rubin), Jocko’s podcast, Infinite Monkey Cage (Brian Cox and Robert Ince radio show with scientists and comedians — the perfect blend), Masters of Scale (with Reid Hoffman) and Design Matters (with Debbie Millman). Worth mentioning too is the self-explanatory Stuff You Should Know (Josh Clark and Charles Bryant).

Every episode of Sam Harris’ Waking Up is excellent, and both Very Bad Wizards (David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers) and Under The Skin with Russell Brand are consistently good. Recode Decode with the ruthless Kara Swisher has some great listens; Death, Sex & Money (Anna Sale) is similar in this respect. Chris Anderson of TED has also started his own podcast; his episode with David Deutsch is superb. David Perrell is doing some great stuff over at North Star Media (the podcast is great but also his website, which includes many useful resource links).

For something unexpectedly enlightening try the BBC’s Desert Island Discs (including the archived shows); here, world-class scientists, musicians, writers and the like, are asked about their favourite music (via the question: ‘You have 6-8 discs to bring to a desert where you will live forever; what do you bring?’), which unlocks the door to some deep conversations about their lives. I find that deep, personal conversations offer the greatest insight into a person’s mind, and music is a very personal thing indeed.

For deeper and more specific stuff I recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (an incredibly well-produced history podcast; Carlin’s other podcast also makes a lot of sense), Earth Ancients (ancient archeology, ‘lost’ history), a16z (by Andreessen Horowitz, tech and culture), How to Start a Startup (by Y Combinator), Philosophy for Beginners (Oxford Uni), various series by The University of Chicago (notably Cultural Studies), Freakonomics and EconTalk (economics), and Levity Zone with Dr Bruce Damer (consciousness, the origins of life, transcendence, NASA). If you want to develop your interviewing skills, The James Altucher Show and The Tim Ferriss Show are awesome starting points.

To close, you’ll notice that most of the choices here bias towards longform3 conversation, preferably with low or no editing. I think the primary reason that shows like the JRE, The Rubin Report and On Being are hits is because they reflect real conversation: unpredictable, tangential, non-linear, often difficult. TV and radio have no place for real conversation — because of topic- and time-constraints — and even magazines and even books are heavily edited. Therefore, the general public perception of what problem-solving, hard conversation and debate looks like — way in which we’re exposed to wisdom and insight — is resemblant of something complete, definitive, polished. Of course, this is unavoidable (who wants to to make public their incoherent drafts and verbal tics?), but also misleading and unrelatable. How many attempts at conversation on TV look like nobody’s hearing anybody? How many end in heated debate, with unfair cutoffs, on a caricatural note? This may be entertaining; it may make headlines; but is it productive use of time? No. Raw, longform conversation is not free of constraint, but no conversation ever is. As consumers of these podcasts and videos it’s as close can get to witnessing proper thought in action.

Because this list remains incomplete, I may add to it in the future. That’ll likely be through another post, though I may just add to this one.

  1. Though you probably don’t know that I know that you knew I was at some point going to say that. Of course if you didn’t know then my knowing would have been in vain, but let’s not talk about that.
  2. For those who don’t know Jocko.
  3. Longform is the name of another noteworthy podcast.

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