Tag: Interview

Karl Pillemer, Interview No. 2

Karl Pillemer is the author of 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

I posted some of the key lessons from his book last week.

As part of my ongoing series of interviews with authors and experts, I had the chance to speak with Karl about the most important lessons that should be passed on to the younger generations, whether happiness is a choice, the keys to a happy marriage, and the biggest regrets.

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Can you tell me about yourself? This was a fascinating project, how did this project come about?


As a gerontologist – someone who studies older people – I realized that I had focused much of my research over the past 25 years on problems of aging: nursing homes, Alzheimer’s disease, elder abuse. And that’s how our society also often looks at old people: as frail, needy, and about to bust our federal budget. But in my work, I kept meeting older people – many of whom had lost loved ones, been through tremendous difficulties, and had serious health problems – but who nevertheless were happy, fulfilled, and deeply enjoying life. I found myself asking: “What’s that all about?”

And I started seeing some fascinating research in the field of positive psychology. Study after study has shown that older people – in their 70s, 80s, and beyond – are actually happier than younger people.

One day it hit me: Maybe older people know things that younger people don’t about living a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. To my surprise I found that no one had actually done a study to answer the question: What practical advice do older people have for the younger generation? That set me off on a quest for knowledge – for the practical wisdom of older people – that lasted seven years.

So two of the main reasons for doing the project are these:

First, the fundamental hypothesis of this project and the book is that older people are the most credible experts we have on how to live happy and fulfilled lives during hard times. They have experienced extraordinarily historical events that tested their limits – and they have learned how to cope with them, to survive and to thrive. They have also been through the kinds of personal challenges and tragedies that younger people lie awake at night worrying about: loss of parents and spouses, even children; the ups and downs of marriage, child-rearing problems, bad jobs and unemployment. And they have come through them, and often are happier than younger people, as research shows us. What better source of advice for living for the rest of us?

Second, it was absolutely urgent to do a project like this now. Because this precious resource – the wisdom for living from this greatest generation – is about to disappear. In 10 years, most of this extraordinary generation – who lived through poverty in the Depression, who fought or held families together in WW II – will almost all be gone. And their advice for living would be lost forever.

That’s what I was able to capture in the Legacy Project: Not clichés or platitudes – like you see in some self-help books – but real, practical advice and tips for living better, on things like how to find a mate and stay happily married, how to raise kids, how to find a great job and succeed at it, how to avoid regrets, and how to age successfully. I wanted to take it and make it easy and fun to read for younger people – and older as well.


You interviewed a diverse group of over 1,000 seniors. A group you call “the experts” because they’ve done something we haven’t, that is, they’ve lived a long life. What is the most important lesson they want to pass along to the young?


At the core of their lessons for younger people is one major insight. And this lesson is a key to understanding their other lessons. It’s a beautiful example, because it shows something older people uniquely know – because of where they stand on life’s road – but that younger people can benefit from.

This lesson is one that almost everyone expressed. And they did it vehemently. It is kind of like one of those nightmares where you are yelling and no one can hear you. What they want younger people to know is this: life is short. The older the respondent, the more likely to say that life passes by in what seems like an instant.

They say this not to depress younger people, but to get them to be more aware and selective about how they use their time. Older people practice what psychologists call ‘socioemotional selectivity” – because their time is limited, they make careful decisions about how to use their time. The discovery of the Legacy Project is that younger people can learn from this and practice it earlier in life. As one man told me: “I wish I’d learned this in my 30s instead of in my 60s; I would have had so much more time to enjoy life.”

So they tell young people to stop wasting time and instead to use it more carefully. Some implications of this insight are to say things now to people you care about, whether it is expressing gratitude, asking forgiveness, or getting information; spending the maximum amount of time with children; and savoring daily pleasures instead of waiting for “big-ticket items” to make you happy.

Another piece of advice comes from this idea that life is much shorter than you realize: Take a chance. People in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond endorse taking risks when you’re young, contrary to a stereotype that elders are conservative. Their message to young people starting out is “Go for it!” They say that you are much more likely to regret what you didn’t do than what you did. As one 80-year old, successful entrepreneur told me: ‘Unless you have a compelling reason to say no, always say yes to opportunities.”


One of the things I took away from the book is that a lot of the people you interviewed believed that happiness is a choice, that we can just choose to be happy. Some people are skeptical of the claim happiness is a choice. Can you elaborate on that?


One of my first interviewees made me aware of this core piece of elder wisdom. I asked her to help me to understand the sources of her happiness. She thought for a moment and then offered the explanation that could serve as a motto for the elders: “In my 89 years, I’ve learned that happiness is a choice – not a condition.”

Most of the elders said that taking charge of one’s own happiness simply must happen at some point if one is going to live a fulfilling life, and especially in old age. Not trying to assume control over everything that happens to us – they laughed at that idea – but over our own conscious attitude toward happiness.

Another elder told me: “My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life.”

The elders make the key distinction between events that happen to us on the one hand, and our internal attitude toward happiness on the other. Happy in spite of. Happiness is not a passive condition dependent on external events, nor is it the result of our personalities – just being born a happy person. Instead, happiness requires a conscious shift in outlook, in which one chooses – daily – optimism over pessimism, hope over despair.

Another of the elders described this idea as a revelation to her: “The biggest light bulb over my head came to me when I saw I could move away from painful situations by using my choices. I didn’t have to stay and take the pain. I could initiate change. This was a turning point in my life.”

You can choose to be happy, the Experts tell us, in spite of financial hardship, illness and loss. And it’s not an empty cliché, because so many are doing it right now.


What do the experts say is most important for a long and happy marriage?


Their number one lesson is: Choose your mate carefully! The key is not to rush the decision, taking all the time needed to get to know the prospective partner and to determine your compatibility with them. Said one respondent: “Don’t rush in without knowing each other deeply. That’s very dangerous, but people do it all the time.” Also make sure you like his or her family.


One of the tips was to work in a job you love. They were essentially saying life is short, choose a job for intrinsic not monetary rewards. Can you expand on that and maybe touch on any tips they had on making the best of a bad job?


The elders are unanimous on that one point: Choose a career for its intrinsic value rather than how much money you will make. Our elders are keenly aware of how short life is, and they think it’s a mistake to waste precious lifetime in work you don’t like. They tell you to avoid statements like: ‘I’d really love to do ___, but I think I can make more money doing ___.’ According to our elders, you need to be able to get up on the morning excited about work, so choose your career with that in mind.

And it’s true that the older generation has this advice for work: Make the most of a bad job. Remember that many of these folks who grew up in the Great Depression had bad jobs early on – in fact, their bad jobs make our bad jobs look like good jobs! They found, however, that they learned invaluable lessons from these less-than-ideal work situations. You can learn how the industry works, about communicating with other employees, about customer service. As one man told me: ‘You can even learn from a bad boss – how not to be a bad boss!’ All this is useful in your future career.

I would add that when asked about what makes a job truly rewarding, the oldest Americans stress autonomy. They suggest that you look for a job that offers you as much self-direction as possible – and that taking a lower salary for a job that offers you greater freedom is worth it. An 82-year old successful entrepreneur told me: “The autonomy – most people never understand that. They’re slaves to somebody. The feeling that when you have this freedom –– there’s no money that can pay for it. You can’t buy it. You have to earn it, you have to feel it, and you know something? It doesn’t get better!’”


What were their biggest regrets?


When asked what they regret in life, many of the oldest Americans said: ‘I wish I’d traveled more.’ They recommend that people embrace travel, and especially when they are young. So if young people right now are wondering what to do with those graduation gifts, elder wisdom says to look into some travel (and low budget is fine) before you begin that first job.

Another of their biggest regrets made a real impression on me. I need to admit that I’m a world-class worrier. So for me a particularly striking lesson for avoiding regret – and a nearly unanimous one – was this: Stop worrying. The elders deeply regret time wasted worrying about things that never happened. So looking back from the end of life, they take a radical view of worry. As one elder told me: “Worry wastes your life.” In the book, I give readers specific tips offered by the elders for breaking the worry habit – and they work!


What’s changed in your life — what do you do differently now — after writing this book?


I can genuinely say that the six years I spent talking to older people all over the country about their lessons for living changed my own life. I have tried to put into practice what they told me as much as I can. One thing just about every elder advises is this: “Live like your life is short.” That’s one thing they know from the vantage point at the end of the life course. They say this not to depress us, but to help us make better decisions, to savor daily life, and to say things to people that need to be said (while they are still around). I have developed more of a “carpe diem” mentality since doing this project, and I think people who read the book will too.

Probably the most extraordinary thing I learned was this: Old age is much better than we think it will be. For a lot of people who read the book, I think they will wind up being a lot less fearful about the last third of life, and much more optimistic. As one person told me: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.” Despite their problems, most of the people I interviewed feel that they are happier in some ways, freer, clearer in their priorities than they were when they were younger.

If anything comes out of this book, I hope it’s this: Making people aware of the source of wisdom that’s right in front of them: America’s elders. We’re going through economic upheavals and families are struggling: Who better to ask than people who survived the Great Depression? Families are struggling with our military involvements: Why not ask people who supported families through World War II? Struggling in your marriage? Why not ask people who have been happily married for 50 or 60 years? I’d love to see these kinds of conversations going on in every family – how about starting with family holidays like Thanksgiving?

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Still curious? Buy 30 Lessons for Living.

Samuel Arbesman, Interview No. 1

Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. His recent book, The Half-life of Facts, explores how much of what we think we know has an expiry date.

Samuel, who was happy to be the first in an ongoing series of interviews, talks about his book, science, knowledge, and society.

A friend of mine, Neil Cruickshank, helped come up with some of the questions.

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Can you tell me a little bit about your background?


I began my training in evolutionary biology and I received a PhD in computational biology from Cornell University. However, even during graduate school I began to think about how to use the computational and mathematical models I had been learning about to help understand society. This transition continued when I did a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard under Nicholas Christakis, where I explored social networks, cooperation, and scientific discovery. About two years ago I moved to Kansas City to be a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where I study and write about a lot of different topics, ranging from the future of science to how cities grow and develop.


What was the motivation behind writing The Half-life of facts?


I’ve always been aware of the huge amount of information that we learn that becomes out-of-date rather quickly. But as I moved into the field of quantitative social science, and explored topics from network science to scientometrics, I realized that there is a deep order to how knowledge grows and changes over time, and even how it spreads from person to person. I wanted to tell this story in the hope that a reader will find it as fascinating as I do, but more importantly, would come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the underlying regularities behind all of the knowledge change we see on a daily basis.


… When I read about cognitive biases and also the research that suggests for some areas of expertise – such as medical surgery – at a certain point of time the accumulation of experience does not equate to better performance results, I think about how we often defend our opinions and decisions on the basis of our experience, but in fact that experience may just be a reinforcement of error or bias.

In your book, you supply additional reason for me to doubt even those things I may be very sure of. How do you see the connection between the half-life of facts and what this means to the idea of wisdom and the respect we offer to an individual’s experience?


It’s certainly true that many of the bits of information we learn over the years become outdated and are overturned, and so we have to make sure that what we are working with is not obsolete. And on the basis of this, experience might be a hindrance. But I think a lifetime of experience and wisdom, rather than simply an accumulation of facts, can often leave someone better prepared for dealing with change. Because they’ve had to deal with so much change throughout their lives, people often have a better sense of the shape and impact of change. While it is certainly true that someone with more experience might also be less likely to change their ways, and adhere to outdated information, understanding the regularities behind change—even if only known in an intuitive qualitative sense due to experience—can provide a mechanism for adaptation.


When I read your book I often reflected on moments when I have been sure, and confident. And I also thought about how I have managed being in time of change. In psychology, one of the “big five” personality traits is Openness. Some of us seem to be much more comfortable with flux, or change, and readily able to respond to and even gain energy from change. Others seem to have a greater need for anchors and continuity with the past, and as the degree of change increases we focus more on and more on the things that remain unchanged, and change itself is fatiguing and depressing. Is there a fundamental disadvantage for those of us who are less open and more at ease with stability?


In a word, yes. People who cannot deal with change are going to be at a huge disadvantage in the world. These type of people might not have been disadvantaged in previous generations, where change proceeded rather more slowly, but as the many fundamental changes around us—in what we know and in what the world likes—continue to accumulate, we often have to deal with large numbers of these changes in a single lifetime. In the book, I chronicled the large number of computational information storage technologies (ranging from floppy disks to the Cloud) that I have used over the course of three decades, which is a far cry from the one or two that people of the Middle Ages might have used for storing information (books and scrolls). Those who can’t adapt will have a great deal of trouble in this world.


You quote John H Jackson: “It takes 50 years to get a wrong idea out of medicine, and 100 years a right one into medicine.” I’ve heard teachers say similar things about changes to curriculum. Do you have any thoughts on how education and educators, particularly in schools, should incorporate your ideas into teaching and curriculum design?


This is a really important question. I think that we need to move from an educational system that is focused on memorizing facts to one that is focused on how to learn. Of course you need a fundamental background and familiarity with certain information in order to have a basic understanding of the world, so I wouldn’t throw out memorization entirely. But so much of what we know is going to change and we need to have an educational system that recognizes this. In medicine, there is continuing medical education—constantly learning what is new in one’s field—and I think this kind of attitude needs to be universalized for knowledge in general. Specifically, students need to be taught how to continue to learn new facts, and embrace the changing knowledge around them. If that is the focus, rather than the facts themselves, education will be more durable, but will also create graduates that can continue to learn on their own and adapt the world around them


What about organizations… in a world of constant change how can understanding how facts change better prepare us for dealing with uncertainty?


Organizations often adapt slowly, just like many of us, sometimes even maintaining a mission after it has outlived its usefulness. A willingness to confront these changes must be deeply embedded within the leadership of the organization, which hopefully will be easier when people are educated to understand changing knowledge. Otherwise, the organization will slowly fail, hemorrhaging the more adaptable people—who are frustrated by the lack of change—along the way.


I was struck by your statement: “ONE of the most fundamental rules of hidden knowledge is the lesson learned from InnoCentive: a long tail of expertise— everyday people in large numbers—has a greater chance of solving a problem than do the experts.”

I imagine trying to promote this idea in an organization, such as an IT firm or a Government Department – where there is a strong culture of respect for expertise – and I think it would be an extremely hard sell. If I can be extreme, this idea argues that credentials or other normally recognized markers of individual status are maybe not worth as much, or perhaps overvalued. Do you have any comments on how the idea of “the long tail of expertise” can actually function in a domain where expertise is part of the status and hierarchy?


I think expertise is still important for many questions, especially ones that can be solved in a relatively straightforward manner. But as we move into an increasingly complicated and interdisciplinary world, the expertise we value with likely shift: we will move from valuing those who can solve problems, to those who know different ways to solve problems, or at least those who know how to ask the right questions of a large crowd. Using InnoCentive, or other way to crowdsource expertise is by no means trivial, and understanding the ways that they succeed, as well as the many ways that they can fail, is going to become more important.


How important of a role does diversity play in all of this? If we all goto the same training and schools, and we’re all taught to look at the problem the same way, to what extent would this impact the long tail?


Diversity is critical. We don’t want everyone to have the same background and information. At the same time, making sure that we have people who can bring together diverse backgrounds, translating from one field to another—even at the level of jargon—is also crucial, and something that we often neglect in our excitement of the power of intellectual diversity.


For the most part, I find the tone of your book to be very positive and optimistic – a message of affirmation of the value of trying to understand and learn. But I also note your observation in the Chapter “The Human Side of Facts,” where you describe how we seem to come to a point, often quite early in our lives, where we cease to learn. I observe this often, how we feel there is a sense of having learned and after that learning, life- professional life – is really just the application of learned knowledge. I don’t see a great commitment to “lifelong learning” in North American society, certainly not between the ages of, say, forty and retirement. But professional people often have their greatest influence on the rest of society at this age. Do you have any thoughts on what your ideas imply about lifelong learning and personal development, particularly for those of us who are well-established in our professional careers?


As I mentioned earlier, I think we need to take a page from medicine and its devotion to continuing medical education. Of course, there is a clear incentive in this field, as lives are on the line. But If we can find ways to better incentivize continuing education for everyone, we’ll be a better society. Frankly, this is a hard thing to do. If we can teach students at an early age about the obsolescence of their knowledge, this task will be easier. But for now, it’s quite daunting.


Changing gears a bit… What authors have your learned the most from and why?


I’ve learned a great deal from the novelist Neal Stephenson. His books are generally a set of fascinating ideas wrapped around an engaging plot. The plots pull you along, and in the process I’ve learned about—and been forced to think deeply about—the Scientific Revolution, the invention of the modern monetary system, mathematical platonism, the relationship between Greek mythology and the history of technology, and much more. If you need your mind expanded, Stephenson will deliver.

I’ve also gained a lot from Steven Johnson, who has written many fascinating “idea books” (this term doesn’t quite satisfy me but it’s hard to think of a better description). His ability to weave together numerous concepts that often seem unrelated on the surface and then convey them in a coherent and exciting way is something that is incredibly rare and wonderful to experience.


Do you have daily writing ritual?


I unfortunately don’t have much in the way of rituals. Essentially, I set myself a low word count goal for the day (the amount varies based on how much writing I need to achieve). And then I exceed it. That way, I always overachieve and feel good about my writing for the day. And once I’ve gotten a whole lot of quantity, I then pare it down and do my best to turn it into quality.


Say I’ve anointed you as dictator. What five books would you make every adult read?


This certainly sounds like an intriguing dictatorship. Rather than focusing on my favorite books, I’ll try to limit this to five books that I think are important for thinking about science, knowledge, and society:

Little Science, Big Science by Derek J. de Solla Price — the foundation for a rigorous and quantitative approach for thinking about how science works.

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges — Interested in thinking about knowledge and infinity? The stories of Borges are essential reading.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter — from computer science to how the mind works, this book will change how you think about the world of information.

Nonzero by Robert Wright — a wonderful exploration of how the world has become more complicated and better over time, improving each of our lives

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan—Sagan’s examination of the complexity of the universe and his personal approach to religion as scientific awe

And an optional bonus book for my dictatorship:

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown — captures the excitement and process of science. It’s also a great story.

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Steve Jobs on The Most Important Thing in Life

Steve Jobs captures a lot about life and how we so easily allow others to place limits on what we can and can’t accomplish. The timeless and profound excerpt below is from a 1995 interview while he was still at NeXT — that is, before he came back to save Apple.

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

And the minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however, you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again

If you really understand what he’s saying, it’s life-changing and empowering.

Complement with Jobs’ narration of the iconic 1984 commercial, his thoughts on creativity, and why you should follow your curiosity.

Richard Feynman — Take the World From Another Point of View

In this clip from a documentary film shot in Yorkshire in 1973, physicist and philosopher Richard Feynman (1918-1988) talks with Fred Hoyle, an accomplished astronomer from the United Kingdom.

Feynman poses the question: “What, today, do we not consider part of physics, which may ultimately be part of physics?”

His answer (which should be cued up here at the 7:10 mark) is the initial conditions of the universe, as well as the possibility that the physical laws themselves, evolve with time.

As he explains, there was a time when we considered the properties of substances to be chemistry, but as the quantum mechanical understanding of the atom evolved, we came to discover that this was actually all a part of physics.

In physics, our acceptance of the way things are (i.e. given conditions) without wondering why they’re like that is akin to playing chess without asking where the pieces should be placed before the game even starts.

It’s as though we’re doing a chess game and we’re working on the rules but we’re not worrying about how the pieces are supposed to be set up on the board in the first place. We tell ourselves, that’s not our business, that’s the business of cosmology and how the universe came to be. It’s interesting that in many other sciences, there’s a historical question. Like geology, we ask “How did the earth evolve into its present condition?” In biology, it’s “How did the various species evolve to get to be the way they are?” But the one field that has not admitted any evolutionary question is physics. “Here are the laws!” we say. We don’t even think about how they got that way. We think, well it’s been that way forever, it’s always been that way. It’s always been the same laws. And we try to explain the universe that way. So it might turn out that they’re not the same all the time, and that there is a historical, evolutionary question.


This fascinating conversation between two great minds continues in the follow-up video. Listen on to hear Feynman explain why he’s afraid to speculate about things.

Richard Dawkins on Pascal’s Wager

Richard Dawkins’s wide-ranging interview with Playboy Magazine.

PLAYBOY: So you aren’t taking Pascal up on his wager. He was the 17th century philosopher who argued it’s a smarter bet to believe in God, because if you’re wrong——

DAWKINS: The cost of failure is very high. But what if you choose the wrong god to believe in? What if you get up there and it’s not Jehovah but Baal? [laughs] And even if you pick the right god, why should God be so obsessive about you believing in him? Plus, any god worth its salt is going to realize you’re feigning. The odds are extremely low, but nevertheless it’s worth it because the reward is extremely high. But you may also be wasting your life. You go to church every Sunday, you do penance, you wear sackcloth and ashes. You have a horrible life, and then you die and that’s it.


PLAYBOY: What will happen when you die?

DAWKINS: Well, I shall either be buried or be cremated.

PLAYBOY: Funny. But without faith in an afterlife, in what do you take comfort in times of despair?

DAWKINS: Human love and companionship. But in more thoughtful, cerebral moments, I take—comfort is not quite the right word, but I draw strength from reflecting on what a privilege it is to be alive and what a privilege it is to have a brain that’s capable in its limited way of understanding why I exist and of reveling in the beauty of the world and the beauty of the products of evolution. The magnificence of the universe and the sense of smallness that gives us in space and in geologically deep time is humbling but in a strangely comforting way. It’s nice to feel you’re part of a hugely bigger picture.

America is split into halves:

PLAYBOY: Do you get discouraged by the continuing attacks on reason?

DAWKINS: No. I go on the internet quite a lot and read what young people are saying. I see a great upsurge of good sense, rationality, irreverence. America is split into halves. There’s the Sarah Palin know-nothing idiots on the one hand, and then there’s a huge number of intellectual, intelligent, educated people on the other. I find it hard to believe that the Stone Age types are going to win in the end. An awful lot of people who call themselves religious simply don’t know there’s any alternative. If you probe what they believe, it turns out to be pretty much the same—we all have a sense of wonder and reverence at the majesty of the universe.

What makes us human?

DAWKINS: We are a unique ape. We have language. Other animals have systems of communication that fall far short of that. They don’t have the same ability to communicate complicated conditionals and what-ifs and talk about things that are not present. These are all unique manifestations of our evolved ape brain, which some evidence suggests came about through a rather limited number of mutations.