Tyler Cowen has influenced my life more than any other person I’ve never met.
Tyler Cowen is very popular online and most of his fans are eager to compliment his brilliance or incredible knowledge across many domains. I wrote this post because the area Tyler influenced me the most and what I think is his greatest strength is something few discuss; his ability to deal with emotional and intellectual insecurity.
For context, when I first started reading Tyler’s writing as a teenager 15+ years ago, I was upset at how apolitical, non-partisan and unemotional he was. Sure he had all these great ideas but the world was filled with silly people who needed to be taken down a notch. Tyler never did that and eventually I realized he was right. Tyler’s equanimity and the way he tries to confront his own insecurities and flaws (that all humans have) is what, in my opinion, makes him so unique. By spending so much time reading his work, Tyler’s demeanour has rubbed off on me and made me a much better thinker.
Here are a selection of some of my favourite Tyler Cowen posts that capture his unique way of thinking:
Pushing the Button
When describing a person/group/idea that you dislike, if you feel the need to attack them, it is akin to pushing a “button” that makes you temporarily dumber. You don’t want to be pushing the button yourself or in fact, spend time around/reading others who do.
The Fallacy of Mood Affiliation
When reading about an issue, people frequently identify with a mood and depending on how that mood resonates with that issue, they will artificially create a set of arguments to match and justify the mood.
Devalue and Dismiss
“a writer will come up with some critique of another argument, let us call that argument X, and then dismiss that argument altogether. Afterwards, the thought processes of the dismisser run unencumbered by any consideration of X, which after all is what dismissal means. Sometimes “X” will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course. The “devalue” part of this chain may well be justified. But it should lead to “devalue and downgrade,” rather than “devalue and dismiss.”
Tyler Cowen’s 12 Rules for Life
1. Assume your temperament will always be somewhat childish and impatient, and set your rules accordingly, knowing that you cannot abide by rules for rules sake. Hope to leverage your impatience toward your longer-run advantage. 3. When the price goes up, buy less. Try to understand what the price really is, however, and good luck with that. 7. Learn how to learn from those who offend you. 9. I don’t know.
Why Do People Hate the Media So Much
“No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.” “The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.” “A good rule of thumb is that if you resent the media “lots,” you are probably making a number of other emotional mistakes in your political thought.”
This gem is also linked to in the original post expressing the idea: “So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status”
How Public Intellectuals Can Extend Their Shelf Lives
2. Avoid criticizing other public intellectuals. In fact, avoid the negative as much as possible. However pressing a social or economic issue may be, there is almost always a positive and constructive way to reframe your potential contribution. This also will force you to keep on thinking harder, because it is easier to take apparently justified negative slaps at the wrongdoers. 4. In your copious spare time, keep on picking up and learning new areas of study. 6. Interact with students, and not just in a “famous person interacting with students” kind of way. The value of having to motivate and explain things to people who don’t necessarily care who you are is high. 7. Shy away from discussion of political candidates as much as possible. “Run away” is better yet. 8. Try not to write things, including tweets, a less analytical and intelligent person also could have written. 10. Hang around happy, cheery people. That said, also have some ornery friends determined to make (intellectual) life difficult for you. You need both. 12. Be very reluctant to purge your friends and acquaintances for perceived intellectual or political wrongdoings.
I also really appreciate these two responses from podcast interviews:
Tyler Cowen: What I recommend to people is to read books on the history of the visual arts and try to make sense of styles in the visual arts. Pretty much every style from the past that had some notoriety had something to it. Its beautiful or interesting. It may not be your favourite. Go back, try to make sense of that style. And it will be hard. And if you can do that for a style you don’t immediately love, I don’t mean read a book on Monet and look at water lily paintings.
Ezra Klein: How about brutalism. I’ve never understood that style.
TC: Yes, to go back to look at brutalist buildings, pictures of them, read books on brutalism. I love brutalism. And if that can make sense to you, you then have an open carte blanche, like to every other idea out there, and my thinking on this question has really moved away from, well here’s some particular thing. I’m more meta. Maybe more like robin Hanson. Here’s the way to open all the doors for you and I more and more think its tough issues in aesthetics are what people should study. Styles they don’t love. Learn how to love them. If you think its crap you’re wrong.
Tyler Cowen: Yes. You know, I feel I’ve been very fortunate in life and I think I have about the most even temperament of anyone I know. I literally don’t have unhappy days. It would be hard to say I’ve had zero in life, but I think I’m almost weirdly never unhappy in a way that’s good for productivity, but maybe almost inhuman and to be a little bit feared or looked down upon or not thought well of. I think that’s a better way to think of me than to hear my story of failure. A few years in graduate school, yes, I felt pretty lonely. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I was like a nerdy kid. That was bad for me. I mean, that would be the best I could do and that’s so cliched and kind of pitiful. I don’t know the big life setback tale. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to be.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that’s your answer.
TC: That’s a weird answer, but it’s weirder than it sounds, I would just say. ‘
TF: Have you always been even-keeled in that respect? Is it just out of the womb that was your programming or is that something that you developed over time?
TC: Both. I think that was my natural inclination and just as you mature, you become more that way. But I’ve always felt pretty happy. I suspect my peak happiness is well below that of most people. Hard to prove that or measure that, but intuitively when I see people very, very, very happy, it’s quite strange to me. I feel, “Gee, I’ve never felt this,” but same when people are depressed, so I think my range is compressed in an unusual way.
None of these posts are so illuminating on their own. But when read together, they express a certain framework for thinking; one that truly grapples with some of the weaknesses that most frequently and significantly impair our thinking. We love to criticize others and it makes us dumber. We have a need to feel right and have certainty. We often feel smug. We think we know more than we do and others have less to offer. What at the moment is trendy or seems right may not in fact be the enduring truth. Things that certain groups love likely offer some value and it is our own loss if we can’t appreciate it.