My summary of Tyler Cowen's approach to leading an intellectually fulfilling life
Looking back over the past months, there is one commonality running through most of my non-mindfulness-focused newsletters and that is that I have a lot of quotes from Tyler Cowen.
For the past few years I’ve listened to somewhere on the order of 100 hours of him talking both as interviewer via his podcast “Conversations with Tyler” and as interviewee (mostly on YouTube). If you’re not familiar with Tyler Cowen, he’s an economist at George Mason University who is an unparalleled polymath - I can barely do him justice so just browse his podcast topics if you want you get a sense for his intellectual breadth and depth.
When I reflect back on why I like Tyler, it’s because he inspires me to follow my curiosity wherever it might lead. While most of the world encourages focus and an intellectual pragmatism, Tyler embraces and studies everything: he has podcasts on the classics, on economics, bitcoin, on why he enjoyed Proust in German, on the best way to hitchhike around the world, on space archaeology, on Chinese cuisine, and more. The list of topics he’s interested in is endless...
Tyler is one of my intellectual heroes. When I reflect on why, I think it’s because in many ways Tyler’s approach validates various this aspect of my personality: I feel his model for life gives me permission to be intellectually curious.
To give more context for those of you that don’t know me, my intellectual pursuits are… eclectic: for example, at various points in my life I have studied some dozen languages, traveled around the world a few times, I learned Congolese dancing at one point, I studied electrical engineering, I loved comparative literature, I did a lot of programming for a few years, I went law school, and also business school, I dabbled in investment banking once, I was a professional YouTube consultant, etc. I just love learning. How does everything add together, you might ask? Well… it doesn’t! I learn because I see it as a way of enriching my life and getting more from the world around me. Most of what I’ve learned has not been helpful in any professional way but it’s enriched how I see the world.
Which is why I like Tyler. Here is Tyler describing his mission in life:
I think I’m on a quest to assemble and gather information, and satisfy my own curiosity and see as much of the world as possible and also try to give some of that back to others. So I think it’s somewhat of a selfish missions, has some altruistic byproducts but I enjoy the really selfish part of it of just learning things.
Of course, comparing myself to Tyler is a vast overstating of my capabilities: he takes things further and deeper than I ever will.
That said, after spending so much time listening to Tyler I thought I would summarize my reflections on how I think Tyler approaches the world. I haven’t seen a similar distillation so I thought it might be fun.
Below are the 6 core tenets I see in Tyler Cowen’s philosophy for leading an intellectually fulfilling life. Below each one, I’ve added a few examples from his talks. If you’re short on time, you can scan the bolded sections and get the summary. I then provide an example of how it all applies below.
How to lead an intellectually fulfilling life
Q: Human culture is a rich, boundless treasure that can provide endless rewards to those that know how to unlock it. How does one do so?
A: To make the most of human culture & knowledge, you have to force yourself to expand the areas you experience. Within each you should build context, diversify your mediums of consumption, amplify with friends/mentors, and the make best use of the time available:
Increase the diversity of human culture that you experience:
Tyler has interests across chess, Indian classical music, the classics, economics, world literature across many countries; travelled to over 100 countries; maintains a blog on the best restaurants of suburban Virginia, etc. The world is rich and full of wonder. Always keep exploring and pushing your curiosity into new areas.
To truly get the most out of new experiences, develop enough “context” so that you can enjoy each area and get the benefits:
Tyler calls this “learning to crack cultural codes” and “context is that which is scarce”. The main idea is that almost anything can be interesting and rewarding if you develop the context required to appreciate it. A corollary is that if you don’t think an intellectual niche with strong fandom is “good”, you are almost certainly wrong and just lacking context.
This is also one of the benefits of compounding longevity: Tyler often says “It took me over 50 years to read this book” - this is because the overall context accumulates over time.
“ Someone says, “How long did it take you to read that book?” And I’ll say, “Fifty-two years,” because I’ve been reading since I was three, and that’s the correct answer. People don’t get that. It took me 52 years to read that book. So I’m not a fast reader. I’m a very, very slow reader. You’re just mis-measuring the unit if you think I read something quickly.”
Maximize the marginal benefits from your experiences:
As an economist Tyler is constantly talking about how to make the most of time available (“what are the marginal benefits of doing more of X”). One of his main insights is that “the good” in an any area is dramatically better than the average so you should always try to find ways of optimizing your time to spend it on the best of a given topic.
Tyler says: “Every area you don’t given a damn about you probably should read at least one book in. Because the very best book in that area is superb, and you’re not going to know what it is. So if tennis is something you don’t know anything about, well, read Andre Agassi’s memoir. That’s a wonderful book. You don’t have to know about or care about tennis. And just go through other areas – gardening, dogs, turtles, whatever. Find the best book about dogs and read it, and the less you like dogs, actually, the better that book is going to be, because you are not sick of the topic.”
Diversify your mediums of consumption – books are overrated + amplify physical learning:
When looking to learn something new, look beyond word-only books: look at videos, look at picture books, find ways to learn with your body. Ask yourself, is there a way to enjoy this topic through the arts, by traveling, by meeting someone new?
As Tyler has said at various points:
“[…] a lot of very smart people maybe over-invest in books, under-invest in travel. [Put] your body out there in some sense, that we as humans are creatures of the body, […] take that very literally and very seriously.”
“You should almost always watch a movie rather than a TV show. If you have to, watch the movie in hour or half-hour segments. Movies are better and smarter, at least if you can figure out which are the quality films.”
“At the margin, almost everyone should be watching more foreign films. Do you really know them all? How well do you know the best of African cinema? Iranian cinema? And so on.”
“There is also plenty on YouTube that beats TV shows, and if you are old you may not consume much YouTube content at all.”
“…go see some concerts… Concerts of different kinds, also recitals, not just the Symphony Orchestra.”
Amplify learning via friends, mentors and small groups
“… I think people typically learn things really well through either mentors or small groups of peers trying to do the same thing. So you may or may not have time for that. But if you can do it, it’s the best way.”
“Mentorship can be general or specialized. I have had classical-music mentors, art-market mentors, country-specific mentors when I lived in Germany and New Zealand, foreign-language mentors, chess mentors, economics mentors, philosophy mentors, writing mentors and friendly mentors to help with the basic emotional issues of life. I’ve tried to find mentors for just about everything. Sometimes the relationship lasts only a week or a month, other times for years. Aside from providing teaching and advice, the mentor, like the small group, helps make an issue or idea more vivid: A living, breathing exemplar of success stands before you. The mentor makes a discipline feel more real and the prospect of success more realistic.”
As you learn, test your beliefs (e.g., “what is your mental model for how to think about this?”)
From Tyler: “When you write out ideas, you realize the imperfections in your own thinking. [Be] open to critical feedback. And just never stop writing. And even, if you have the time, write out views you don’t agree with. Try to steel man them. Just do that very often and very regularly.”
When you put everything above together, it results in a rich intellectual life where you are constantly extending your knowledge boundaries, enjoying the best the world has to offer, using body & mind to experience it all.
A HYPOTHETICAL TRIP TO MONGOLIA
To see how this comes together, here is a transcript of David Perells’ interview with Tyler Cowen about whether Tyler would take a hypothetical trip to Mongolia for just a few hours:
DP: …If I told you that tomorrow that I’d pay for a flight, and you could go to Mongolia. You could go for 10 hours but you’d have to have a very local experience, you would learn something, but you'd have to deal with the sleepiness, the hassle, the inefficiency of it all, I feel like you would at least consider that […] idea in a way other people wouldn’t.
TC: Oh I’d do it in a heart beat! There’s no ‘consider’, what kind of word is this? Those 10 hours would be so vivid, the food would be so interesting, just seeing how people relate to each other, hearing the sounds of the village, or the city, or wherever you would send me. My goodness, what a thrill to remember your whole life. Mongolia - like… wow… I used to be a kid we used to scroll out these books with maps on the floor, and look at different countries… they were barely real places to me. And to go to one…
DP: So what’s behind that? There’s got to be some learning element? Walk me through that because I don’t think I would do that for 10 hours… There’s no way.
TC: I bet you would. First, have you ever tried it?
TC: Well once covid is over, you need to try it. Maybe even will have the chance to try it together. But in any case you should try it… Like, I’ve tried alcohol, right. You might decide it’s not for you. But if it is, my goodness whole new worlds are opened up, right? And most places are closer than Mongolia. The only argument against Mongolia is that, like, the Caribbean is only a few hours away. You’re in San Francisco, you’re further from most things but still a lot is close to you right now […] So the only case against Mongolia is you can simply do the same 10 hours with a shorter flight, like in Belize or Honduras or whatever you want to do.
DP: So then it’s some kind of appreciation for novelty that you have, that’s what I’m hearing.
TC: And there’s an excitement, like, my goodness “I am here”. Taking in the sounds, sights, sensations… That it’s imprinted on your memory. You kind of order it with the other places you’ve been… Maybe you’ll get to hear some music, which like, on a recording is never the same. You know send me somewhere good. I’ll order the right thing from the menu.
Let’s map this against the elements laid about above:
Increase the diversity of human culture that you experience:
Going to Mongolia (even for 10 hours) is absolutely worth doing because it’s a way of enriching your life with a brand new experience that is likely very different from anything you’ve experienced before.
To truly get the most out of new experiences develop enough “context” so that you can enjoy each area and get the benefits. (aka “learn to crack cultural codes”)
Before Tyler went to Mongolia I’m certain he would re-read a book about Mongolian history & culture, research the right types of Mongolian food, expose himself to Mongolian music, learn about what to explore when he gets there.
Maximize the marginal benefits from your experiences
10 hours is enough time to get a huge amount of value from a trip. The marginal returns of those hours are very high (e.g., the first hours in a place, your mind is soaking it all in). Could longer periods also be great? Sure. But the benefits from even a few hours are huge.
Diversify your mediums of consumption
Tyler mentions “the sights, the sounds, the sensations”. “Maybe listening to live music”. “Ordering ‘the right’ Mongolian food from the menu”. To make the most of the trip would entail fully immersing oneself across all senses - this is very different from just going to Mongolia and just visiting a museum.
Amplify with social learning
“Maybe we’ll go together” he says to David Perell.
As you learn, be explicit about your beliefs
When David mentions that he probably wouldn’t like to travel this way, Tyler pushes him on it: “Have you ever tried it?” In other words - Tyler’s mental model from pushing himself into these scenarios is such that he has learned how much he gets from these trips. “You might decide it’s not for you. But if it is, my goodness, whole new worlds are opened up, right?”
Tyler is my intellectual hero. Although I’ve never met him, his curiosity and enormous appetite for learning have been one of my main inspirations these past few years. Pushing myself to learn new areas of culture forces me to be intellectually curious.
The telltale sign of a successful intellectual life is weirdness – weird in the best possible way.
Fantastic distillation of Tyler's philosophy. Thank you for this David 🙏
Excellent piece, and Tyler Cowen is indeed an inspiration. I'm really glad you wrote this piece to help relay that inspiration to others.