The Common Reader
The Common Reader
Noah Smith interview

Noah Smith interview

Motivation is everything

Writing Elsewhere
Recently I have written for The Critic about how to find somewhere to live in London, solving the problem of modern architecture, and in praise of stupid politicians. I also produced some epigrams framed as advice for young people.

Noah Smith is an economics blogger with his own Substack (highly recommended). We talked about late bloomers, motivation, modelling effects, peer effects, culture, and Anime. I’ll leave you to decide what you believe about the disagreement half way through about whether we are morally obliged to work hard and use our abilities.

Henry Oliver: Well, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time and your willingness.

Noah Smith: Absolutely.

Henry Oliver: What I am interested in, I'm writing about late bloomers, so I'm interested in ideas to do with, your intelligence is flexible, it's not determined at birth, and you have lots of margin to improve yourself. And I saw your tweet, is he called June? Is it Huh, June Huh, the mathematician?

Noah Smith: I don't know. I don't know who that is.

Henry Oliver: Yeah, he won the Fields Medal, he dropped out of high school.

Noah Smith: Oh, right. That's right, that guy.

Henry Oliver: He wanted to be a poet and he didn't like maths. And then it was like six years into college, he went to a maths class and he got into it and then he got really obsessed with it and he dropped poetry and he got really... He only ate pizzas, 'cause he was just sitting there doing maths all the time. And then he wins the Fields Medal, so he's like a total late starter, and it defies all the stereotypes that you have to be good at maths when you're young. And he's everything that you're not supposed to be.

Noah Smith: Right. Right.

Henry Oliver: So what I'm interested in is your views on this whole area. Sorry.

Noah Smith: Well, it's hard to say. You can definitely pick out lots of anecdotes like this, of people who come late to a subject and then just go really far in it. And then you're gonna get this infinite debate between people who say, "Well, he always had the talent, he just didn't wanna do it before." And people who say, "Well, you really... You can do anything you set your mind to." And blah, blah, blah. And there's no way you can really prove that. But I think that the better... It's cool to have a guy who dropped out of school to be a poet and then eventually became a Fields Medalist. That's eye-catching and neat, but I think the better examples are the more prosaic examples of people who are just middling students who go on to be math professors. And so for example, I had two classmates.

When I was in school, we knew who the very best math people were. I was one of them. And but there were a handful. There were three or four kids each year who were the best people at math and who would go to the top schools and do technical subjects and blah, blah, blah. And one of those did become a math professor, but I think most of them just went to... Eventually became software engineers at Google or whatever, or just blew up their life and became an economics pundit like me. So almost none of them actually went into the field. And then when I look at the couple of people I know from my high school who became math professors, they were both fairly middling in math in high school. They didn't win the competitions. They weren't on the math team.

Actually, so when I was in high school, what I liked was not math but physics. That's what I really liked. But I wasn't that interested in math because I felt like it wasn't real, physics felt more real to me. But then when I got to college, I started to really love math proofs, and so I started to like math a lot more in college. The people who ended up becoming math professors, they were on that sort of journey magnified several fold. And so now, they're teaching at some, at a college. And so I guess the point is that...

Henry Oliver: What happens to them?

Noah Smith: They get interested. Motivation is everything. When we talk about late bloomers, we have to talk about motivation, because kids aren't born motivated. And when kids are young, their parents provide them with motivation. Their parents hug them and tell them they're great, and then insist that in order to keep getting that approval, they've got to ace a bunch of math tests. Or some parents take a more harsh approach where they say, "If you don't ace your math test, I'll beat you with this belt."


But I think that's kind of going out, that approach, which is definitely what my grandmother had to deal with, with her immigrant parents immigrating from what's now Ukraine. If she didn't get perfect scores on math, they would hit her with a belt.

And that is just... That seems very harsh. It is very harsh. It's a world... [laughter] That's the world of the depression and the World Wars, and that old world that was very harsh, and you still get a few immigrant parents who try to take that extremely harsh attack. But I think that in America, we're moving away from that toward something that can be just as emotionally damaging, which is, "You had better get 100 on this math test or I won't love you." And that's the alternative way. But then when people are young, they get all this motivation from their parents, and the people that we call nerds are really just people who are closer to their parents. People who are less close to their parents, we don't call nerds. And no matter how much they are talented at math or good at math...

One of my best friends was incredibly smart as a kid. He could ace the SAT as a little kid or whatever and could do a bunch of math stuff. He didn't care at all. He just wanted to play rock music, play rock guitar, and... I don't know, play Dungeons & Dragons, and hook up with girls, and get in fights. And he was very good at all of those things.


And now he's a physicist in Europe. His parents are both math professors. If there's any natural talent to be had, he obviously had it. And then he just... When he was ready, he just effortlessly went and became a physicist. And so you could argue that there's both talent and motivation here, but the motivation component was key. He had to feel like he no longer felt like... He would go and get in bare-knuckled boxing competitions in Germany or something, which he won. [chuckle] And then... Or just do the craziest combinations of drugs you'd ever not wanna do. And he just did that kind of stuff, and then when he felt like, "Oh, I guess it's time for me to get a job," he just went and did physics. And then he got interested in it, and he got really interested in the physics that he was doing. And it became this... Just like when he was a kid, he used to pour over Dungeons & Dragons manuals, crafting the perfect adventure, he would now just pour over physics, like experiments, and he worked at CERN, and etcetera.

And so that's an interesting journey right there. Because motivation changes over life, he was not a nerd as a kid, but he got motivated later in life. And I think that with a lot of nerds, with a lot of the kids that you see who are very close to their parents, and who are motivated by parental involvement, you see burnout, because then those kids are like, "Yeah, I do what my parents want." Blah, blah, blah. And then they get to age 17, 18, and they're like, "Wait a second, why am I not getting laid? Why am I not partying with the other party kids?" And then when they get to college, when they get out of their... Out from under their mother's wing, out to the world where you live in a dorm and you're around all the other young people and no one's really supervising you. I seen... I went to a fancy school and saw this happen again and again and again and again. And so these people just... These people lose motivation and they run off the rails. And they say, "Why did I not get to party?" And often, they regain motivation later in life. The most common pattern is that they party, they figure out how to hook up with people, they find romance, they get married. And then they get their motivation back to be really serious, and then they...

So I have a friend who's a mathematician who when he was in college, he was just very down because he had always been so motivated by his parents, and now he was away from them. And now he was like, "Why do I not have a social life?" And we were his friends and always trying to promote him to get a social life. And then he started working out, dating girls, whatever. I went to his wedding, his wedding was a math wedding where a bunch of math people came and made really elaborate esoteric math puns on PowerPoint at his wedding. [laughter] And it was a great wedding.

Henry Oliver: That's a good wedding. Yeah.

Noah Smith: It was a really good wedding, it was great. And then we all played board games and stuff like that. Now he’s a mathematician, but anyway, but the point is that he went through that period where he lost motivation, and some people never get it back. Some people really... And so I think motivation is the key, life motivation. Yeah.

Henry Oliver: Right. And then some people talk about... Some people are very fixated on the prefrontal cortex doesn't mature until you're 25, and so you don't get executive making decision abilities. And that's why people in their 20s run around and they don't work hard, and then in your mid-20s, you kind of get your life together. But that seems like a very pat... It's like a Just So story like, “Don't worry when you're 25, it'll just happen and you'll just wake up and your prefrontal cortex will have turned on.” That's a very inadequate explanation. What is motivation? Where can we get it? How can we explain this to people?

Noah Smith: I can tell you what I think, and I can pull in various psychology papers to support this thesis. But I can tell you my thesis, that it's all about human approval, it’s all about... Motivation is social, there is some intrinsic motivation that you get from nothing, just from curiosity. And we over emphasize this. It's fun to tinker with stuff, and it's fun to play with stuff. There’s certainly, like mathematicians out there like Terence Tao, who just from a very early age, were just intrinsically motivated by the fun of tinkering with stuff and have never stopped. That's real, that's a thing that exists. But I think that for most people in most cases, motivation is social. It has to do with the people around you saying attaboy, attagirl, atta non-binary person, [laughter] and patting you on the back and saying... What do you say for atta with a non-binary person? I don't know that. But anyway, so then the point is that people give you congratulations and approval and they say, “You done did good kid.” [chuckle] And that’s really what it is, it’s... I don’t know what the British idioms are here. What do you tell someone you did something good?

Henry Oliver: We would just say, “Well done.”

Noah Smith: Oh, got that.

Henry Oliver: You don’t wanna over do it. You say, “Well done.” That's pretty big, right?

Noah Smith: Yes, well done.

Henry Oliver: If they speak, that's approval. Speaking is approval.


Noah Smith: Got it, got it. [laughter] That reminds me of a guy, the software engineer in Japan, who was very briefly my roommate for two months. And then we took him to a tattoo piercing bar, which freaked him out so much that he moved out of our apartment. [laughter] He was very... [laughter] Alright, but that's where motivation is, it's social and parental motivation is important, but it doesn't last forever.

Henry Oliver: So you’re saying it’s like status seeking, you want to be seen in a positive way by your peers, you want to have the status of someone who’s done whatever these things are, and if we took that away, you would lose interest in the thing itself, the substance.

Noah Smith: Well, maybe... So I would be a little more subtle than that. So status, I think, which we pronounce with a short A, sorry. But yeah, status is like...

Henry Oliver: No, it’s good. It’s good.

Noah Smith: It’s a public thing, it’s a public facing thing, like you get the top score in the competition, so your name is up on a board, or you get a medal or something. It’s something that everyone... It’s something of common knowledge that everyone can see, that everyone else can see, but approval is more general. So that is one sort of approval, yes. But approval can also just be your friend saying, I think you did a good job, and then no one sees. And that's not status, you don’t actually get status for having one friend who likes you, and yet that one friend who likes you can often be more important approval. And I think that the most important form of approval for most people is romantic, it’s your romantic partner is who gives you the most important approval in your life. That’s the person whose approval you seek the most, in fact, achieving romance itself is a form of approval for people, like, “I was good enough that this person liked me and wanted to exclusively dedicate there, whatever to me.” Blah, blah, blah. And so I think that in itself is a powerful form of approval for people who want to... I don't wanna be crude here, but for people who wanna go around and get laid. The getting of laid, it is approval from someone. It’s not status necessarily. You can go brag about how much you get laid, but people just don’t like you when you do that. Unless they’re on a sports team or something. But generally, people don’t like that, but you get the approval privately from someone… you know you are attractive. You know you could attract people. And to be honest, I think that’s a bigger motivation for a lot of people than the actual enjoyment of sex, is just the knowledge that you're attractive, the... I’m asexual, so I can observe this from an outside vantage point. Yeah, so people get that approval and then romance is that magnifier, because someone approves of you not just to spend a night with you, but to actually dedicate their life to you, or at least some large portion of their life. And so that's an important part of approval. So romance, friends, parents, community. The community approval is status, but it’s only one type.

Henry Oliver: How far can we take this?

Noah Smith: Colleagues….

Henry Oliver: But in some ways, this sounds a bit like you’re saying people do difficult work for the same reason that the peacock grows a heavy tail, because people will look at that work and go, “I like you. That’s a nice tail. Maybe I'll sleep with you.”

Noah Smith: [laughter] Well, I don't know about that. I don’t think people would...

Henry Oliver: Have like...

Noah Smith: I don't know about that. But some people are doing that.

Henry Oliver: There must be more to it. There must be more to it than, “I want people to like me, so I will study Physics.” Studying Physics is hard. There are other ways to get people to say, “Dude, good job.”

Noah Smith: Well, okay, studying Physics isn't always hard.

Henry Oliver: No, but you see my point, like you could...

Noah Smith: It was a lot easier for me than Computer Science. And then I can’t...

Henry Oliver: But you could paint the fence and someone would say, “That was really good. Well done.” You don't have to get a... You don’t have... People do some impressive things, especially late bloomers. Late bloomers often, it’s like, “I haven't done this thing with my life, I'm gonna bloody well go and do it.”

Noah Smith: Right. But so it gets pretty subtle because I think that some people have internalized... So here, there is a lot of psych research, actually. My dad's a psychologist, so I learned about a lot of this. But people have internalized motivation that comes from sort of imagining modeling of the people who might approve them. So you think even if your mom is long dead, you might think, “What would... My mom would be so proud that I did this.” Or even if your mom doesn't actually care or even is alive, but just doesn't give a shit. You could imagine that.

And so often, this sort of imagined approval from this ghost of someone hovering over your shoulder is so subtle that you don't even think about it unless you stop to think about it, like, “Why do I think that getting married by 28 is important? Why do I think that?” Someone thinks like, this is a conversation I had with someone the other day, “Why do I think getting married is important?” Their mom never actually called them up and gave them the sort of call, which every female lead gets at the beginning of every rom-com of the mom calling you at your... You wake up in your urban apartment and in your sloppy bed and then your mom calls you and your mom's like, “Why haven't you gotten married and settled down?”

Henry Oliver: “Where are my grandchildren?” Yes.

Noah Smith: “Where are my grandchildren?” It’s like the beginning of every rom-com. I don't know, Bridget Jones or whatever. And so then that scene is just again and again, and so... [laughter] Yeah, so basically, your mom doesn't actually have to call you up. You have an imaginary emulation of your mom in your mind, that may or may not be accurate, that tells you... That calls you up in your mind and tells you need to get married by 28 or whatever, or that you need to succeed in some career. So maybe you choose a career out of interest, or you choose a career out of aptitude or both, but then what drives you to succeed in that career instead of just sitting around and tinkering around. So often...

Interestingly, often we think of people who are on the autism spectrum as people who are more intrinsically motivated by curiosity and stuff like that. Those people don't always end up being very high achievers, because I know a guy who’s definitely on the autism spectrum who is a professor who just likes to just do his research and never worry about self-promotion or prestige. And so didn't get that prestigious until later in life when people started urging him to become more prestigious and then he started sort of promoting... He’s like, “Oh, maybe I should.” And started promoting his stuff, and then got very well known. But for many years, he just wanted to do his own thing in his own lab.

And so, intrinsic motivation doesn't always lead to what... To “success.” Because remember, when we’re talking about success, there’s an automatic selection bias filter there, because we, the public, have decided what is success. So when you’re asking what causes success, you're asking what causes people to do things that the public recognizes as success? And so, it’s not just public recognition, but the fact that we’re filtering by public recognition when we’re looking for a thing to explain means that we start out with the kind of thing that could get recognition. You know, we... Like, Fields Medal instead of just, “What if you just did math because you were really into anime and you sat around figuring out all the different ways you could re-watch your favorite show?” Someone did that and he proved...


He got the core of a very important math result on hyper-permutations from sitting around figuring out how many ways he could re-watch The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which is a boring cartoon, sorry, [chuckle] that you can re-watch a bunch of different ways? And so, he was figuring out like, “How many ways could I re-watch this?” And so he was posting about it in some forum, and someone relayed it to the sci-fi author, Greg Egan, who also works as a mathematician. And so, Greg Egan came in and partnered with this guy and they published this important paper, but the anime guy just wanted to watch some dumb cartoons. [laughter] That's all he wanted to do and he came up with this result. So...

Henry Oliver: What is your best guess for how many people like...

Noah Smith: It's just he did it by accident.

Henry Oliver: Like how many people are there, like the anime guy, where if we could pair them up with someone or if we could discover them or if we could be like, “Dude, lift your head up and look at the world for 10 minutes, you're actually doing something.” Like, how much talent could we uncover like that? Or are there just not that... Most of them are just watching cartoons, they're not that many of them?

Noah Smith: Well, okay, there's not that many of them, but more importantly, if you did discover them, why would they care? How would you get them to care?

Henry Oliver: Well, how did Greg Egan do it? I mean, he got this guy to publish a paper.

Noah Smith: Well, Greg Egan published the paper.

Henry Oliver: Okay.

Noah Smith: He’s a mathematician who cared. [chuckle] Like, he... He took... This guy would never have published the paper. So, you know, another... The most famous example of this is Grigori Perelman, right? Do you know who that is?

Henry Oliver: No.

Noah Smith: He’s a wacky Russian mathematician who... I hope he’s okay now. He’s very... Anyway, he came to the United States and was studying, and then while he was here, he figured out how to solve the Poincaré conjecture, which was one of the older, more difficult open problems in mathematics. He figured that out. He wrote it up in a very sloppy way, he just enjoyed it, he wrote it up in a sloppy way and just posted it on the archive. And then he just posted this pre-print and then people are like, “Oh, hey, this guy solved the Poincaré conjecture,” and then some other mathematicians from Princeton went through it and they're like, “Okay, yes, this works.” [chuckle] And so, then... But then they were like, “Okay, publish this paper,” and he was like, “No, I don’t wanna publish the paper,” and they were like, “Come on, you're gonna be famous, you’re gonna be so important and famous of a mathematician, blah, blah, blah,” and he disliked it so much that he moved away.

Moved to St. Petersburg, moved back to Russia to live with his mom, on his mom's pension instead of having a job. He could have gotten a job at any university. And then the Clay Mathematics Institute offered him a million dollar prize for solving this open problem, ’cause they had a million dollar prize for this, he turned the million dollars down, didn't take it. He got a Fields Medal, he refused the Fields Medal.


Henry Oliver: Oh my God.

Noah Smith: He refused... Look up Grigori Perelman, he refused the Fields Medal. This guy’s nuts, he just like... He has a beard that looks like a 19th century Russian guy beard, really. And he like... What he likes to do is... His pastimes apparently include breaking into the opera to watch from the janitor seats or whatever, and hopping rooftops...

Henry Oliver: Okay.

Noah Smith: In St. Petersburg, he lives on his mother’s pension. And so this guy solved one of the most important problems in math, obviously has a lot of talent, what is he doing? [laughter] Like, he didn't even care. He was like, “No,” he just... “I quit”, and he's never done any math again, because the social... The stress of getting so much attention kinda broke him. And so, that’s... And so the question is...

Henry Oliver: But yeah.

Noah Smith: Would the anime guy or this guy, who's like anime guy times 20, would [chuckle] they actually want that. When we look at... If you talk to VCs a lot, I think they just generally will tell you that Founder is a personality type, and you’re not gonna change people’s personality types by discovering hidden talent, they’re gonna have the same personality. So you can harvest their ideas, but turning them into the person who wants to be an Elon Musk type...

Henry Oliver: Right.

Noah Smith: Or a Jeff Bezos type, is just not going to happen. And so I think that we have to understand that there are people whose personality types... So, I think that it’s more important to discover the people with the right motivations directing it in the wrong directions, than it is to discover the people with the hidden talent. Somewhere, there is a guy who is extremely good at organizing people and at improving operations and at incorporating new technological ideas, blah, blah, blah, who is using that to sell drugs, and who is basically part of a mafia, drug cartel kind of thing, who is a respected gang leader, and who is using his talents to sell drugs and organize a drug gang, right? And then find that guy and tell that guy, “Why don’t you start a tech company instead, it’s like a drug gang, but nobody gets shot, hopefully.”


Unless it’s Anduril, in which case somebody gets shot. [laughter] But then like... Yeah, so then nobody... Why don't you start a company instead of a drug gang? And so, there’s people who are just... Whose motivations are pointed in the wrong direction. If you want people to apply their motivation to creating value in the corporate world, you should find people who have the motivation to build organizations, to implement new technologies to solve problems, to get money, etcetera. Find those people. Those are the missing entrepreneurs, the people who are leading drug gangs instead of being entrepreneurs.

Henry Oliver: How can we change someone’s motivation? That seems like the most difficult thing.

Noah Smith: Different friends, different romantic partner: that’s how you change someone’s motivation.

Henry Oliver: Right, but anyone who’s got a friend who’s in a bad friendship group or who knows someone who's made a bad choice of romantic partner or... Like, this is a cliche thing, right? You can’t... There’s nothing you can do once someone gets into that, like, there’s nothing you can do.

Noah Smith: Yes, you can, different friends. Go find them, invite them to some hangouts. You don’t tell them to stop hanging out with your hoodlum friends or whatever, you don’t do that, you don't police who they currently hang out with, you just give them an alternative, you introduce them to some new people and then they can get approval from the new people. And so, I will give you an example.

Henry Oliver: Okay.

Noah Smith: The example is my brother-in-law, who gave me permission to use this example.


Henry Oliver: Okay.

Noah Smith: My brother-in-law has never met his father, his mother had him when she was 16, he grew up in a trailer park, very classic. No one in his family had ever been to college. His sister was pregnant at 15, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Henry Oliver: Yeah. Yeah.

Noah Smith: Zero people in his family had ever been to college, but he liked Japanese cartoons, he liked anime, and so he went in the high school anime club where he met my sister. They ended up getting married. She convinced him to go to college. He went to a mediocre college. He's like, “Okay, fine, I’ll... My family aren't the college type.” [chuckle] But she convinced him to do that and he was like, “Oh, you know, it was okay, I met some nice people. That was kind of fun.” And then they moved to DC where she’s a lawyer. And then she just kept telling him about the work that she did and introducing him to her lawyer friends, you know, and then he met... He started hanging out with all the lawyer friends because his own motivation... Like, his own impulse would just be to like, make friends with a bunch of like, bums he knew from high school who like to play table-top role playing games and watch anime, and yet she's here introducing him to all these lawyers. And he’s like, “Well, there’s all this cool stuff,” you know? And so he decided to go get a law degree and he got into a top law school. [chuckle] And then he...

Henry Oliver: Wow.

Noah Smith: Yeah, and so then... Now he just graduated from the top law school and now he's like... He’s not a practicing lawyer, he does like, legal consulting work or whatever, but then... But yeah, he graduated from a top law school, and then, no one in his family had ever been to college. They were just hanging out in a trailer park getting pregnant too early. And what happened... No one harshly said, “Don't hang out with the trailer park people, no more of that. Cut off those people.” No one did that. He just met a group of people who inculcated him with this different perspective, you know? He realized he could do different things, he got interested in law, but it wasn't just that... I mean, yes, he got intrinsically motivated, he thought law is cool, right? But also the people around him, his friends who were my sister’s friends, were people who did law, and he could get engaged in interesting discussions by talking about legal stuff with them and turned out to be just as naturally smart as any of they were... As any of them were.

But then he never would have been discovered by the system had he not met my sister in the Anime Club. So, I guess my real answer to this question of how do we discover the hidden gems of talent is Anime.


Henry Oliver: There’s a report today in the New York Times of a Raj Chetty study, I think, showing that people of lower socioeconomic status families, the people who move into a higher income bracket, I think tend to have made friends across class divides. So the areas of the country where there are more people making friends across class divides tend to have this... This is exactly what you're describing, that they...

Noah Smith: Oh wow, so... Well, I was bullshitting based on anecdote, Raj Chetty was doing the systematic study, so that’s why Raj Chetty is the greatest.

Henry Oliver: He’s got a big... Yeah, he’s got a big scatter plot that I think suggests what you’re saying.

Noah Smith: Hold on. So actually, yeah, send me that. I know he’s done work on Lost Einstein’s modeling effects, neighbourhood effects, things like that. This is a follow-up to that. This is great.

Henry Oliver: I believe so.

Noah Smith: I love that. Raj Chetty is so good, and anyway...

Henry Oliver: Yeah, no, it’s very interesting. It’s very interesting.

Noah Smith: Yeah.

Henry Oliver: So you’re saying we need to leverage that a lot more, that’s the way we match smart people with better motivations, better, better incentives.

Noah Smith: Right. Right. Find the people and find something that doesn’t require them to immediately jump into Math competition or do a bunch of hard work in the service of something...

Henry Oliver: Right.

Noah Smith: That they've never been interested in. So that's... You know what, I just invented the Anime theory of motivation. Anime theory of talent discovery. [laughter] How about that?

Henry Oliver: So here’s my follow-up...

Noah Smith: Why Anime? Because it is something that engages your mind a little bit, but it’s 99 parts fun, one part thinking about stuff.

Henry Oliver: So low barriers to entry.

Noah Smith: It’s low barrier to entry. That’s why a person who is a bum, which is... I use the word bum and it’s pejorative, but I think it’s absolutely fine to be a bum, if you wanna just sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons, and work in McDonalds your whole life, do that! Fine, I don't need you to work hard for the nation, be a McDonalds Dungeons & Dragons bum, but if you’d also like some... [chuckle] If you’d also like to graduate from a top law school, cool. Okay. So really... So Anime and Dungeons & Dragons, those things are things that... Dungeons & Dragons engages your mind a little more than Anime because you have to calculate a few probabilities and you don’t know that's what you’re doing, you're like, how likely it is that I’m gonna be able to make this role in Dungeons & Dragons?

You’re calculating a probability from a uniform distribution, but you don’t know that. Also, you just learn a little baby statistics just playing D&D by accident. You learn about fat-tailed versus thin-tailed distributions too, because fat-tailed distributions are the ones that make you die a lot. [chuckle] And so, anyway...

Henry Oliver: So we should have Dungeons & Dragons in every school.

Noah Smith: We should have Dungeons & Dragons in every school, we should have Anime in every school.

Henry Oliver: Okay.

Noah Smith: And so... Or the option to do this, and we should have a club where people watch Anime and then write essays about it or something. I don’t know, I just made that up, but Dungeons & Dragons should be an extra-curricular activity because it teaches creativity better than anything else. All the Asian countries that are trying to revamp their educational system to teach creativity, should have Dungeons & Dragons classes, and then they’re there, that’s it, that’s all you do. Anyway...

Henry Oliver: Okay. I want to follow up on the thing about your brother-in-law.

Noah Smith: Yeah. Very cool dude.

Henry Oliver: He is a very cool dude, and that’s a great story and it’s a great outcome, but it’s very contingent, because he met your sister, he ended up being a lawyer, if he’d met someone else’s sister, he might have done something else.

Noah Smith: Correct. He could be an engineer, entrepreneur, who knows.

Henry Oliver: Who knows, right? Because smart people can do this whole range of stuff.

Noah Smith: Right.

Henry Oliver: Is there a problem of like, a lot of people who are smart and who come from a middle class family and they go to university and then they do all become lawyers and consultants and whatevers. And actually, if we’re gonna start pulling other people in and re-motivating them, we don't need more lawyers, like, we’re fine for consultants, we would prefer you to be engineers and computer scientists and poets and whatever, how does that work?

Noah Smith: That’s at the policy level. So that’s... The government is what does that. And you change the incentives. You can do in a stupid way, like Xi Jinping, where you just basically take people who are doing all the stuff you don’t wanna do and then just find them and arrest them. [chuckle] That is stupid and that will fail, because... [chuckle] But instead, we use positive promotion. So, right now we’re finding a need to do this with semiconductor engineers...

Henry Oliver: Right.

Noah Smith: Which China also does, ’cause we’re in this race of semiconductors, right? And so China is doing it by basically kicking your ass if you do anything but semiconductors and that’s not gonna work. It’s gonna work, but not well. But then what we can do is we can promote, we can, of course, subsidize money because people do care about money. Money matters, especially if you have kids. Kids are very expensive. Kids are a huge source of motivation for people to make money.

Henry Oliver: Oh, you don't need to tell me.

Noah Smith: Oh, you have kids?

Henry Oliver: Yeah.

Noah Smith: Nice. And so, there is pressure on you to always get some money.

Henry Oliver: Yeah. [laughter] Yeah.

Noah Smith: Whereas me, there’s no pressure on me to get money except to just like, buy my... Like I’ve bought my rabbits like all the treats that money can buy, and now it’s just like, more money just means like line go up for me, right?

Henry Oliver: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Noah Smith: But if you have kids, then you need the money. And so, yeah, of course, if you’re like super rich, if you’re like Elon Musk, then you’re back to line go up, because you don't need that money or [chuckle] any of that. You know? You just wanna make the line go up, but then, so... That's government policy. We can promote STEM through stuff in school where we like do... I don’t know, MacArthur Genius, blah, blah, blah. I don’t even know what that is.

Henry Oliver: Yeah, yeah.

Noah Smith: And then we can pay money so that Intel will go out and hire a million people and they’ll do a job fair and they’ll do like, summer internships and they’ll be like, “Hey, college kid, how would you like to come do an internship at Intel?” And they’re all like, “Oh, sure.” [laughter] And then like, nerd goes and does his internship at Intel and then, “Wow, like that’s cool. I’d like to do that after I graduate,” or whatever. Although I guess they mostly hire PhDs. But anyway, you can do that. And so, policy can put their thumb on the scale for whether people become lawyers. In fact, there’s been a big sort of crash in the legal field. My brother-in-law went into it, but in fact, the number of people going to law school is like way down.

Henry Oliver: Oh, really?

Noah Smith: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. And the sort of billable hour model collapsed, so basically like, lawyer ran to the end of its... The lawyer boom ran to the end of its life.

Henry Oliver: Okay.

Noah Smith: There was a big lawyer boom for various reasons. Their underlying drivers were things like the changes in patent law that allow you to patent business process and software drove a need for IP lawyers, which drove up the wages for other lawyers. There was like expanding federal regulation in a number of areas, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. My sister’s a human rights lawyer. She works for the Equal Opportunity Employer Commission, so like, she’s not in that world. But there was just a general expansion, kind of like business school expansion drove the demand for Economics profs and raised salaries even in traditional Econ. departments. You get the supply... Or, I’m sorry, demand affect bleeds through the whole industry. And you had that in law for about, I don’t know, like half a century, and then it just ended one day [chuckle] in the 2010s, it ended.

And then like... And to be perfectly honest, I think this is one of many causes of increased unrest in the 2010s is the fact that the legal profession became much more closed off as a sort of like a high-earning kind of out for people who study the humanities. I’m gonna write about that soon. How the drying up of opportunities for humanities majors led to a bunch of pissed off humanities majors who instead were like... They're like, "Now I'm a socialist. I'm gonna rebel. Marxism!" And like... Really it's just because no one would let you be like a fancy lawyer that you expected to be, because we need fewer fancy lawyers. So like, demand plays a huge role here and the government can put its thumb on the scale for demand. And finance can too. You know, like VC...

When the second tech boom drew... When finance crashed on the East Coast, a second tech boom, like suddenly everybody was giving their money to Andres and Horowitz and whoever or... I don't know, Soft, I think. Tiger Global. These people were just showering money on entrepreneurs, and so all these smart people who used to go into investment banking, trading, hedge funds, whatever, flowed to the west, and they all started starting companies, tech companies. And so, for a few years in the 2010s, the VCs really had their pick of all this talent because of this massive amount of money they were throwing at it. And I think the recent crash is kind of the end of that rainbow. There's still gonna be some of that going on, but I think that the days of easy money are temporarily over.

Henry Oliver: One of the questions on policy that I think is relevant here is like... It’s kind of about policy, but it starts with, “What is the status of stuff like STEM generally in the culture?” And one of the problems I think we have... We certainly have this problem in Britain, I think you have it in America, is that to be a scientist is just not cool enough relative to like the number of people we need to study like Physics or Maths at A level. But if you look at Eastern Europe... So this is one reason given why fewer women study STEM subjects. And if you look at Eastern Europe, there’s a much higher percentage enrollment of women in STEM subjects. And one of the main explanations for this is that under Communism like you had to be a scientist to help the country and this, “Why would you wanna do something else? We need these scientists. Get on with it.” And so this has left them with a culture that says, “Well, of course, it’s good to be a scientist. Why shouldn’t you be a scientist?” Whereas in the West, it’s more like, “Science, that’s hard. You’re a nerd. It’s boring.” So policy... Policy that’s not...

Noah Smith: Maybe so...

Henry Oliver: As far as China has gone, but that worked better than our thing worked. So how can we split the difference on this?

Noah Smith: Well, and I think that it’s just role modeling effects are important here. With women in science, I think what you’re interestingly seeing is that in Bioscience fields, the women are kind of taking over, and that’s really interesting. So if you look at... And I don’t wanna attribute it to a modeling effect but you can note that, who are the most popular biologists. The most famous popular biologists of the last like decade, that would be Katalin Karikó who invented mRNA vaccines, and Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who were the discoverers of CRISPR. And so those people have really gotten... And you’ve got a lot of... And there’s a lot of other very prestigious like role models for women in Bioscience right here. And it was just... I don’t know if there's any deep reason. People are gonna look for deep reasons why electrical engineering is still like the most male-dominated thing in biosciences, like getting increasingly... Not female-dominated, the top tenured professors because that takes many decades to filter through.

Henry Oliver: Yeah, sure.

Noah Smith: But in terms of who’s going to grad school and who’s getting, etcetera, that's... Women are just surging and I predict will eventually take over like they did in psychology. And so when you look at these fields, you ask why women in this one field, people come up with all these ridiculous Ev. Psych. explanations, like, “Women like things that are alive.” I'm like, “Come on.” [laughter] They’re like a fucking bacterium or a piece of RNA versus flow of electrons in a device that’s... One’s not more alive. You can’t pet it. It’s not a cute little bunny. That’s bullshit. It’s like... And I know because I spend most of my day petting cute little bunnies. But... [laughter] So, no, what’s really happening is that you happen to get some women in the bioscience field first and they provided the modeling effects for other women to look at them and be like, “Oh well, that famous scientist is a woman, I could be a women too. And... “ I can be a woman too? I could be a woman, no, I could be scientist too. That’s something else. [laughter] Then I can be a scientist too, and put on a lab coat and be just like this person. And I think that you see another thing in the theoretical fields, you see that Theoretical Physics is still extremely male-dominated, but you see that Math...

A lot more women are going into Math, and certain segments of Math are getting a whole lot of women, like certain sub-fields of Math are getting a whole lot of women, and Math majors are now about half women. And so Math, I would argue that the skill set required to Math and versus Theoretical Physics is not so incredibly different. It’s a little different, Physics has a little more intuition in some areas, and Math a little more rigor, but it’s not so different. And the fact that women are going a lot into one field and not into the other field, don’t bullshit me with some Ev. Psych. explanation of why women like Math instead of Theoretical Physics. Shut up! To the imaginary Ev. Psych. person who's gonna yell at me on Twitter. No, no, it’s not. It’s modeling effects. It’s founder effects and modeling effects, it’s like... You get some... And like TV, I’m sure has to do with this, there’s probably some effects of media, like media shows women, some famous woman doing bioscience stuff, but not electrical engineering stuff. I don’t know. And there’s probably that, I don’t know, I can’t prove that, I don’t have any evidence.

Henry Oliver: Do we prioritize too young, getting people to sort themselves and decide what they’re gonna do, and therefore cut off like range and sampling? And one of the reasons why being a late bloomer is kind of like a slightly weird thing is because we say to people, “Well, you gotta pick something and you gotta go and do it”, and we don't let them just... We don't encourage this thing where actually you might just bum around for a bit and try different stuff and...

Noah Smith: Honestly, no. America is really good about that. Other countries do that, and they’re trying to do it less. So for example, the most famous example I know of this is a guy named Kim Ung-yong in South Korea, who was... He had the highest IQ ever measured, blah, blah, blah. And they were like, “Well, you've got to...” I don’t know, there was this whole national thing where, “He’s this great genius, and we’ve gotta make him...” And the most genius-y thing they thought they can make him do is go work for NASA. They were like “NASA!” And then he was just like, “You know what? I don't wanna do this, I just wanna be a middle manager at like some company and just have a job and have a life, I don’t really wanna do hard intellectual stuff. I have like a 210 IQ or whatever, like off the charts.” That's... 210 means nothing. It means our test isn’t good enough to measure how well you do these things. And so then he's just like, “I’m just gonna go do my thing.” And so now he’s just like some middle manager somewhere and everyone was, got real upset at him, they were like, “You were supposed to be this ass-kicker”, he’s a baby boomer, I think, and he’s just like, “Yeah, no. I wanna have a life, I just wanna have some kids.”

And the other famous example of this is a guy named William Sidis, who was an American guy who had the other highest IQ ever measured, similar kind of situation, who like everyone in the early 20th century just went crazy over this kid, they're like, “Ah! Smartest kid ever.” Blah blah, blah, blah, blah. And he's like, “No, what I wanna be is a Communist.” [chuckle] And so he became like a revolutionary, he just went to protests and stuff like that, and I think ended up getting killed or something. But I actually don't remember what happened to that guy, so don't quote me on that, but William Sidis was this guy's name. He was just the earlier version of Kim Ung-yong. And so now I think if you look at how society treated Kim Ung-yong, pushing him into this thing, versus how it treated Joon Hu, the poet guy, just letting him do something first in Korea, then in America, you see a big evolution, you see this evolution toward letting people discover what they’re gonna do. And I think we do let people have time to play around and discover what they wanna do.

I think there’s more we could do on this front, and I think that... I don’t wanna go on a tangent, but I think that the most important thing we could do to provide people with a perspective that we don't currently do is pay Americans, especially, to go on overseas trips when they’re young to get some perspective by actually seeing another country, ’cause Americans really get out of their country, especially disadvantaged kids. Imagine you take some disadvantaged kid who's never been more than 20 miles from where he grew up, and suddenly he’s doing three months in Vietnam. That’d be pretty cool. That would be a big perspective expander. But, so anyway, I think that would be a big one. But in the old days, how would you... If you just grew up on the farm and never left your hometown, how would you get out, see the world, and meet new kinds of people? Well, the army. It would be the army. What do they say? “Meet fascinating new people from foreign cultures, and shoot them.” [chuckle] “Join the army!” But, I...

Henry Oliver: That’s kind of what happened to Chris Gardner. Do you know him? The guy... He’s a stock broker. He wrote a really good book called The Pursuit of Happyness, that Will Smith turned into a movie.

Noah Smith: Oh, I didn't know that.

Henry Oliver: He basically had a really bad childhood, lived with a violent step-father, his mother went to jail because of social services problems, and he got out by joining the Navy, and the Navy was the only educational credential he really had. So he's a smart guy, but he didn't have the degree and whatever, and ended up selling medical equipment, and working all the time, and he had... Single father and it was just not working, and he sees a guy with a Ferrari and he's like, “Dude, I need to get me a Ferrari. What do I do?” And got an interview at a stock brokers firm and just... He’s like 27, he’s African American, he has no degree, he’s none of the things that the 1980s stockbrokers firms are looking for.

Noah Smith: That were looking for, right.

Henry Oliver: Right. But he’s been in the Navy and he’s obviously like, he’s obviously got some smarts and some perspective, and he just claws his way up and now he owns his own firm and he is a multi-millionaire and he’s a big success.

Noah Smith: Perspective, so I would say that motivation is really important, and motivation comes from friends, friend groups, and then I would say that... And by the way, the person to really talk about this is... But insufferably in a French way is René Girard. He talks about mimetic desire, and this is just the approval thing I’m talking about, but said in a Frenchier way, and... But it is good, it’s good, it’s good, you should read it. But, yes, like venture capitalists and people in the tech world love to talk about, "Girardian and blah, blah, blah," and yes, okay. [chuckle] So then... Yeah, so motivation is one, but perspective is the other, perspective is exposing your mind to things that you had never thought of before, because when people optimize, they optimize within the choice set that they’re aware of, expand that choice set and they will land on some other optimum, they’ll find it...

Henry Oliver: Do we have to send people abroad though, could we not just give them more anime, more novels, more movies, like different... ’Cause western movies are kind of bad, but if you gave them...

Noah Smith: It’s worth trying all these things, I think of anime and Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy geek, the discovery method, I think of that as more about bringing people together, a social... That’s a social thing. So you... The DnD group that you play with will be a bunch of nerds, the anime group that you watch with will be a bunch of nerds, and then it’ll be nerds reinforcing nerds, so that’s more about... Even if other times you’re going out and getting into fights and stealing cars or whatever people do now, I guess you can’t steal cars anymore, because of new technology, but you can do other... I don’t know. I don’t know how people steal things anymore, but then... I don’t keep up with these things, I’m old. How do hoodlum kids hoodlum now? But the point is that not that you squash that, you give people like this nerd land that they can then... And there’s more things than just anime, and Dungeons and Dragons, there’s like a million things like that, but basically get nucleus-es of where nerds will pat you on the back for being nerdy, in someway.

Henry Oliver: You've said a couple of times that like you don’t... If you wanna work at McDonald's, that’s fine, you don't have to work hard for the nation, and, but is that true? If someone has a talent or an aptitude, or someone is smart, is there not some sort of moral obligation to use... Like people used to say, “God gave you, God gave you your head, you should use it. It’s wrong not to use it.” Is there not something in that? Otherwise, what would happen to us all?

Noah Smith: Look, God also gave us prostates that enlarge at age like 55. So God can just shut up, I don’t know. [laughter]

Henry Oliver: But you know what I'm saying?

Noah Smith: No, no.

Henry Oliver: If you’re born lucky enough to be good at something, you’re somewhat obliged to practice what you’re good at.

Noah Smith: Not at all.

Henry Oliver: Why?

Noah Smith: Not at all, because the simplest answer is because if your heart isn’t in it, you won’t be good at it. That’s the simple answer, if your heart isn’t in it, then all the talent in the world won't make a damn bit of difference because motivation is the key.

Henry Oliver: Are you not worried that the easiness of Netflix and all the other stuff that Netflix is, the whole Netflix culture, means that this has become a very different problem now, because... It’s... The motivation is too easily...

Noah Smith: Leisure is just so fun, that no one wants to work hard anymore.

Henry Oliver: It’s so easy... It’s more than it’s so easy to turn it on and so easy to then just not turn it off. It used to be, if you had to go to the movies, you had to get up, you had to go there, you had to get to yourself home, whatever. Now you get home, you turn on Netflix and the next thing you know, it’s bed time and nothing’s happened. Right?

Noah Smith: I don't know, when I was a kid, all I did was pick up a fantasy book, it’s like, it’s low tech, but I could just escape all day.

Henry Oliver: But that's reading. That's different.

Noah Smith: I know. Well, is it? My parents were like, and they said, “Don’t play video games, don't watch TV, period.” They'd only allow me to watch Star Trek, and they’d allow me to play video games like just like four hours a week, and this is the same... I think four hours a week is the same amount allowed by Xi Jinping, so you’re, basically, right now, you’re recapitulating ideas of Xi Jinping, who is cracking down... Is limiting the amount that kids can play video games by federal government law. He is cracking down on fandoms, he's saying you can't be part of these pop fandoms, cracking down on pop idols, cracking down on all these fun things that kids do, so that kids won't have fun things to do, so they will use their abilities for the national geopolitical martial power of the great Chinese nation state. The only reason for us to do the same thing is if it would somehow help us compete with Xi Jinping, because Xi Jinping has a giant army, backed by massive amounts of industry and whatever, and if we are just sitting around watching Netflix while they take over the world, then we’re not gonna be able to watch Netflix for long.

Henry Oliver: Right, and I'm not saying that so much, I’m asking...

Noah Smith: And war is a real motivation, war is a thing.

Henry Oliver: We have a lot of people... We have a lot of people who are smart, but maybe less aspirational than they should be given how smart they are, or how capable they are. It’s not just smartness. And do we have a cultural problem where we’re not encouraged to be as aspirational as we could be, and we’re two lax with ourselves about, “Well, you did your seven hours today, don’t worry about it,” whereas we should say, “Look, let’s all use the talents we've got, because this is... It’s immoral to just spend your life on the surface...”

Noah Smith: So okay, so about the moral obligation, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I just like, That's a matter of opinion, as David Hume would say, This is like a, this is just a matter of opinion. He’d say it better than that. But that's the point of it.

Henry Oliver: Yeah, but he would also work quite hard. [chuckle] He didn’t waste his talents.

Noah Smith: No, but he wanted to, but he would also go and hang out with Andrew Lord Kames, and get drunk as hell and...

Henry Oliver: I’m not... No, yeah, I’m not against fun, I’m just, I’m asking if we reached a cultural point where...

Noah Smith: We have Netflix. They had alcohol. Right? When you went to Lord Kames's dinners, you would be called either a one-bottle man, or a two-bottle man, which represented the number of bottles of wine you would consume in one dinner.

Henry Oliver: Sure.

Noah Smith: That's just nuts. In terms of leisure, that's like nuts. That’s so much more leisure than we now have. With the time people work hard, the time people really put their nose to the grindstone and work, work, work, work, work, is during rapid industrialization. If you look at any rapidly developing country, rapidly industrializing nation, then you see this pattern of extreme work, and there’s a very good reason for that, because of the opportunities, because instead of living in a shack, your kids could... The opportunities are just wide open, and every, it’s a scramble. But scrambles don't last forever. We’re not gonna be scrambling forever. And if we had only one country in the world, that country would get rich, and then we’d watch Netflix, and then we'd think, “Wait, should we be doing something more important? No, because our ancestors scrambled and struggled, and starved, and blah, blah, blah, so that we could watch Netflix.” If we had only one country in the world and it just got rich, and then we would be like, “Party time! Thanks, Gramps. Thank you for working hard, now we get to party and watch Netflix all the time.”

And so that’s the one country thing, and so when we talk about economic growth, we're like, “Well, we’re rich and happy, why did our grandparents work so hard, except for us to be rich and happy? They... Why did all this stuff... Why did my grandfather walk to work with cardboard in the soles of his shoes that he couldn't afford to replace for like, I don't know, cents per hour? A few cents an hour, whatever he made in the Depression. Why did he do that? Why did my grandparents make sure to always turn off the lights whenever they left every room to save on their electricity bill, and blah, blah, blah? Why did my great-grandfather beat my grandmother with a belt if she didn't get A’s on her test, if she didn’t perfect her Math tests? Why did he do that? Why do they do all that horrible stuff, except so that I can watch Netflix? They did that for me. They did that, well, I mean they did that for my mom, but they did that for... But they did this for me, and my parents didn't like...

Weren’t really poor, but they... But we grew up in a one bathroom house with no garage, and we... And my parents worked hard. And why did they do that if not for me? Why... If we just had one country and we didn't have the possibility of war, then I think that that would be the end of it. It would just be like, “Leisure is the goal. Now have fun.” Dr. Seuss in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, wrote the most profound line, the fundamental statement of utilitarianism when he said, “If you have not tried these things, you should. These things are fun, and fun is good.” But then, so that’s just utilitarianism. That's just like, “Kick back and enjoy it, man. Consumption, leisure, complementarities,” as we say in economics. But...

Henry Oliver: It's difficult to think of any prominent utilitarians who have just kicked back and enjoyed it, though, isn't it?

Noah Smith: Well, but they did what they liked. Like Jeremy Bentham, or whoever was like, he was writing stuff, because he liked writing. Like I do my hobby. Actually, I’m a perfect kind of example of this, because now I’m doing my hobby as a job. I wrote, I blogged every day, because I liked it. Before I got paid for it, and then when I needed some extra money, I started charging people for it, and now I can just do that as a job and it works pretty well, as a job. And yeah, and so that's great, right? But Jeremy Bentham could have gone to work at some industrial corporation. He didn’t. He did what he wanted.

Obviously, in a leisure, in a rich leisure society, you’re not gonna be able to motivate people to work as hard. And but I would argue that the only problem with that, that there’s no moral problem with that at all. There’s no increased wealth is not its own justification. That’s just line go up, that’s just making a line go up. There’s no reason to make that line go up. The reason is the consumption that you get, and this is deeply baked into the philosophy of economics, right? Working your whole life and slaving away your whole life and socking away your pennies, and never consuming anything, and leaving your kids with millions and millions of dollars, as I have a great uncle who did that. He made a bunch of money but never spent a dime. Then died and left it to his kids, who then, of course, wasted it all, at being complete bums. He did this. That’s not morality, that is obsessive compulsive order. The only reason you do that, is OCD. OCD with anxiety, that is why you save all your money and make all the money and never spend any of it, you do it because you’re anxious, you’re...

Henry Oliver: And are you saying under the framework you’re lining out that those people who spent that inheritance, and just like blow through it, you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s fine.

Noah Smith: I might think those people are losers, as I do, those people are losers, they could have done a lot more stuff, they...

Henry Oliver: But that’s what I’m saying, I’m saying people should... We should be careful about this culture that says, “It’s okay to kick back,” because actually people could do more stuff. What’s the difference... What’s the real difference between blowing through an inheritance and working at McDonald’s...

Noah Smith: But who am I to tell people to do stuff? Who am I? I am just some blogger. Who am I to tell my loser...

Henry Oliver: Bloggers are the people who tell other people what to do.

Noah Smith: I know, but I’m saying like, my loser cousins are just wasting all their inherited money, and I'm just like, “Okay, you do you. I’m not gonna make you stop that,” like do I want you to build some rich dynasty? No, give your money to someone else, let someone else do something with that money.

Henry Oliver: Okay. If there are... No, it’s good. If there are people, like there’s some way through their life, they're in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s, whatever, and they feel like they haven't reached their potential, they haven’t done what they want to do, they took the wrong track, like whatever, these things happen.

Noah Smith: Right.

Henry Oliver: They think they could be a late bloomer, right? What’s your best advice for these people?

Noah Smith: Meet people, it's all about the people that you meet. Meet people who are the kind of people who do the kind of things you wanna do. Then you will do it too, and if you don’t know what you wanna do, which is a lot of people, meet interesting people, meet people who do kind of neat stuff that you don’t know what you'd wanna do, meet scientists, meet coders, meet lawyers, like my brother-in-law did, meet people who... Like if you’re thinking, you know what, I had fun, I partied, I did a bunch of drugs, I rode a motorcycle around... Yeah, that reminds me of my other friend who he led a dissipate youth, rode with motorcycle gangs, did a bunch of drugs, I don’t know, dated European models or something like that, and that was his deal. And then went to Berkeley, naturally smart guy, but then some time in his 20s, he decided, you know what, enough with that, I’m gonna get serious and I’m gonna become a movie director, now he directs documentaries, that’s his thing, he’s really good at it. Yeah, he just sort of... He gave up drugs, gave up motorcycle whatever-ing.

And then now he’s just super into it, he’s very artistic guy, but, anyway, he does some great movies. He just released a movie about Cuba, that’s like a documentary about the opening of Cuba. It is very cool. Which is just called, Cuba, you can look it up.

Henry Oliver: Yeah, yeah.

Noah Smith: But yeah, anyway, so then he's just another example, he’s like, he wanted to party, and then he decided he wanted to do something else, but social connections are the thing. He knew people in the movie world that worked on films, social connections are the key, that friendship connections are the magical elixir through which everything else happens.

Henry Oliver: Okay, so people need to sample the world.

Noah Smith: Sample the world, get that perspective, get those friend groups.

Henry Oliver: Can they do this online, or do they have to go out and actually, and actually find these people in real life?

Noah Smith: That's an incredibly important good question that I have no idea about the answer to, and that I would like to know the answer to it, ’Cause that's one I don't have an answer to...

Henry Oliver: ’Cause I have known people, like I knew a woman who was a really, or is a really good social media manager, and she came to this career in her own words because she said she had no friends as a child, and she made friends on the internet, and then by doing this, she kind of spiraled up into being a proficient social media curator and whatever else, it’s not really my thing, and it’s like she developed not only like a life and some friends and whatever, but she developed a career out of this, quite unexpectedly. Like how viable do you... If you wanna be a lawyer or physicist or a poet or a director, is it viable or do you have to be in the room? Do you have to see that person, not only for you to get inspired, but for them to take you seriously.

Noah Smith: I don’t know.

Henry Oliver: Okay. All right.

Noah Smith: Yeah, I don’t, I honestly don’t know the answer to that, and that’s an, but that's an important question, the question of how much offline can substitute for online, that’s a question for Raj Chetty.

Henry Oliver: Great. Noah Smith. Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn't?

Noah Smith: What's the best Anime on TV right now?

Henry Oliver: [laughter] What is the best Anime?

Noah Smith: Spy X Family.

Henry Oliver: Okay. It’s on Netflix?

Noah Smith: It's not on Netflix. You have to look somewhere else to... It’ll be on Crunchyroll after it’s run finishes, but it’s still airing, if you didn’t wanna settle down and have a family before you watched this anime, I think now you will.

Henry Oliver: Okay, great, thank you very much.

Noah Smith: Absolutely.

The Common Reader
The Common Reader
Literary discussion
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Henry Oliver