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Some of the best ideas from our 200 Clearer Thinking Podcast episodes

Updated: 6 days ago

For the Clearer Thinking podcast I've had a rare opportunity: to engage in over 200 hours of in-depth conversations with 200 brilliant thinkers and doers about "ideas that matter". I've learned a tremendous amount in the process, and I'd like to share with you some of the most valuable things I’ve learned.



This article is written by Spencer Greenberg in celebration of the 200th episode of the Clearer Thinking podcast.


1. How to have better conversations


One of my biggest takeaways from recording so many conversations is the following observation about conversations themselves.


There are many very easy-to-miss branching points in conversations where you can say either:


  1. the socially easy, standard, pleasant, low-effort, polite thing that you've been taught or learned from experience to say, or

  2. the more real, more interesting, more important, more difficult, more out of the ordinary, more awkward thing that's just flitted across your mind.


For understandable reasons, I think that most people, most of the time, say the easy thing in situations when the real thing that occurred to them feels difficult, stressful, or awkward to talk about.


As a podcast host, I've improved my skill at noticing when these opportunities for conversational branching occur and pushing through the real-seeming barriers of awkwardness and stress so that I say the realer thing. This makes the conversation more challenging to execute well but ultimately more valuable and interesting.


Increasing my awareness of these branching points has also, I think, improved my conversations outside of the podcast.


Of course, I'm not advocating that we just say all of our unfiltered thoughts. That would be a terrible idea. Our unfiltered thoughts are often just very boring to others. Worse than that, in some cases, expressing our unfiltered thoughts would inflict harm on others or make others anxious or unduly uncomfortable. So, we should not just say everything we think, and we should be very mindful of the impact of what we say on others and do our best to avoid causing harm.


What I AM saying, though, is that many of us avoid saying things that are real and meaningful and that are likely to spark interesting and valuable conversation because we stick to social scripts or because we maximize social ease or comfort at the expense of depth. I didn't realize I was doing this myself - but conducting 200 interviews (and listening back to those interviews) has made me vastly more aware of it.


Here are a couple of real examples:


  1. A person at a party told me about why they believe in astrology.


The easy thing that my brain wanted me to do (and which I started to do automatically) was to nod and ask polite questions (e.g., about what they use astrology for).


The real thing, though, which flitted across my mind and which I hesitated on but ultimately ended up saying, was: "If it turns out that astrology doesn't work, would you want to know that? Or would you prefer to believe in astrology regardless of whether it really works?"


This was, thankfully, well received and led to a much more interesting and authentic conversation as a result - the person told me that if astrology doesn't work, they really would want to know that, and this led to a very interesting discussion about how one might design a scientific test for their beliefs. This conversation inspired me to run the empirical test of sun sign astrology that we released recently. 


  1. On the podcast, a guest told me about the astounding impact of an intervention they developed.


The easy thing that my brain wanted me to do (and which I almost did automatically) was to follow a social script and say "wow" and comment on how impressive that is.


The real thing, though, which flitted across my mind and which I hesitated on but ultimately ended up saying, was something along the lines of: "To be totally honest when I hear a result that astounding for such a simple intervention, it makes me believe the result less than if it had worked only moderately well."


This, I think, was both a more authentic and a more interesting way for the conversation to go (and, hence, better for my podcast listeners).


Saying the real, more meaningful thing that crosses your mind is not riskless - it is fairly often harder, more stressful, or more awkward, but I find it's also often (but certainly not always) well worth it.


The next time you’re having a conversation, I would challenge you to see if you can notice one of those hidden branching points and consider whether it’s worth saying the realer thing rather than the easy thing. If you do, then use care to take into account the likely preferences of the person you are talking to, and not thrust something onto them that would make them unhappy.


I've also, of course, learned a lot about specific topics from recording conversations with so many interesting people. What follows are a few of them. If you want to dig more deeply into any of the topics below, click the listen buttons we’ve provided. You can also hear any of these episodes on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, Amazon, Podurama, YouTube, and our website.


2. A surprising twist on psychological change


Famed psychologist David Burns told me how his views on the process of healing from mental health challenges have changed over the decades. In particular, he now asks his patients to consider what is good about the negative feelings they are experiencing, before they work to reduce those negative feelings. He takes the view that negative feelings are not because of what's wrong with you, but signs of what is right with you. Once the benefit of those feelings is acknowledged, then you can more easily work towards reducing them (if you still desire to do so).



If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



3. Our beliefs may be able to change the nature of worry 


As Pia Callesen (a researcher who studies meta cognitive therapy) explained to me, our beliefs about worry can change how much negative impact worry has on our lives. For instance, her research has found that viewing your worries as dangerous and uncontrollable can increase the negative impacts that worry has on you, whereas, if you learn to be able to note a worry and just observe it without engaging in it (like a fish that sees a fish hook but chooses not to bite on it), that can reduce the negative impact of worry.




If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



4. The benefits of thinking like a stoic


In my conversation with Bill Irvine, he told me about the powerful self-improvement methods of the stoics, developed nearly 2000 years ago. One idea the stoics emphasized is how beneficial it can be to learn how to take whatever you've got and savor it to the fullest extent possible. Bill talks about an exercise he leads people through where he asks them to "Imagine what it would be like to lose your sight..." and then has them close their eyes for a while to get into the experience. Then, eventually, he says 'Okay, now open your eyes. Well now, isn't that wonderful?'" This simple exercise can help remind us of just one of many things most of us have to be grateful for that we don't usually think about. One of the key insights of the stoics is that there are many things in life we can’t control, but we can control how we look at those situations, and how we look at them can make a huge difference to our well-being.



If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



5. Not just left and right in politics - but up and down


Talking to acclaimed blogger Tim Urban, I learned about his concept of "the ladder" which represents a spectrum of different ways we can approach a topic. When we're fully using what he calls our "higher mind", we engage the world like an ideal scientist: trying to figure out what's really true, regardless of our prior conceptions and doing our best to avoid any bias we have. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the "zealot", who isn't actually listening to counter evidence (instead, they are using what Urban calls the "primitive mind" to think rather than the "higher mind). The zealot just wants to prove themselves right, win arguments and convert people to their side no matter how wrong they might happen to be. When we think about politics, both the left and the right have their top (those trying to figure out the best path forward for society, with the higher mind), and their bottom (using the primitive mind to try to win converts, with indifference to the truth).



If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



6. What we can and can't predict about climate change


In my discussion with Diana Ürge-Vorsatz and Misha Glouberman about climate change, I learned that some of the most serious potential negative impacts of climate change (e.g., such as total deaths that may be caused by climate change annually, and potential political instability caused by climate change) are not figures we have accurate models for yet, and so these present potentially important areas for further research. Right now, the quantities we have the most accurate scientific estimates of are often proxy variables (such as variables related to atmospheric carbon and its direct effects), rather than what we would most care about predicting. 


As an example of uncertainties, here are judgements from the year 2022, made by 180 of the top superforecasters who took part in a US Government forecasting research project or on the public forecasting platform Good Judgment Open.




Judgements like these reflect a lack of consensus about the size of the results of climate change and, by extension, they point to open questions that need investigation.


If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



7. Ethical persuasion 


I spoke to David McRaney about what ethical persuasion looks like. He describes ethical persuasion as facilitating a process where those who are being persuaded retain full agency; they are helped to consider new conclusions, of their own volition and with their own reasoning. He also points out that, in a sense, all ethical persuasion is "self-persuasion". 



If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



8. Harnessing creativity through divergence then convergence


In my discussion with Tiago Forte, he explains how our creativity can benefit from alternating between a process of divergence (where we expand ideas and possibilities) and a process of convergence (where we narrow down to actionable steps). As Tiago describes it: 


"They're almost like different facets of your identity. It's almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you can't be in both. You can't both be totally open-minded and totally skeptical at the same time... For the next 30 minutes, for the next hour or two, I'm going to be in divergent mode to let the filters fall away, make the criteria less stringent, don't immediately criticize and critique every new idea. That's what's needed when it's when you're in divergence. But then you make a decision, “Okay, at this time, tomorrow morning, Wednesday afternoon, or whatever, I'm going to be in convergence mode.” And then you are purposefully skeptical, and purposefully closed-minded. We think of closed-mindedness as being bad, but there are times where you cannot move forward with the thing you're doing unless you close your mind to new information."



If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



9. Variance amplifying institutions


Entrepreneurship expert Matt Clifford taught me about the idea of "variance amplifying institutions", which we may have reasons to worry about. As he put it:


"[T]he last few hundred years, what we might call modernity, has been dominated by the sort of removal of variance from our lives.”


Which is to say that people’s fates are less beholden to random or unusual things happening to them today than in the past. He continues:


“And that's broadly a really good thing. Variance was the dominant thing for thousands of years before that. And that led to sort of nasty, brutish and short lives.
As Hobbes said, the triumph of modernity is sort of actually reducing variance and getting to a place where our lives are more predictable. And so as a result, when the internet came along and provided a mechanism for not just reintroducing but amplifying variance in our lives, we've experienced this as weirdness. 
And so, very briefly, what I mean by a ‘variance amplifying institution', is an institution that sort of selects for tail behavior — the most unusual behavior — and then amplifies it. I think the internet is probably the paradigmatic example because everything more or less that you read on the internet, you're reading because it's been selected by a large group of people for amplification. What do they select to amplify to you?"

The idea is that there’s something specific about the way that platforms on the internet are working: despite there being many normal things that happen every day, they’re selecting and broadcasting the weirdest of the weird, and this actually affects society.


Of course, our newsmedia (including newspapers, etc) has always done this, but recent internet platforms have increased our exposure to this enormously. It may be worth thinking about how this might impact us collectively.


If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



10. Our air may be shortening our lives


As Richard Bruns (an expert in cost-benefit analyses) explained to me, there is a surprisingly large amount of evidence that bad air quality reduces human life span, and that bad air quality is surprisingly common around the world. Dr. Bruns also explains the simplest and least expensive way to improve air quality that has scientific backing.


If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



11. The Secret Demise of Journalism


In my interview with journalist Dylan Matthews, I learned that although many people believe that high-quality, non-partisan journalism in the U.S. started declining due to the rise in social media, there was actually a huge shift before that: when Craigslist took over the classified business, causing media companies to lose a primary source of income, and leaving them scrambling to search for new business models. 


If you'd like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here:



I hope that you found some of these takeaways as interesting as I have! To explore many other ideas from our 200 episodes, simply go here or search for Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg on your favorite podcast app.

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