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3 Years, 100 Issues, 30 Big Ideas
Writing a newsletter with curated content can get a little addicting. You want people to know about the amazing stuff you are coming across, and you can’t wait to get it out to as many people as possible.
In my case, I try to find the parts of the internet that give your brain a workout. The podcasts and links that will make you think. Content around history, science, philosophy, big ideas, interesting interviews. That sort of thing.
I’ve done this now 100 times with the Hurt Your Brain newsletter. The format has changed a little here and there, but the ultimate goal is always to help people find content they can learn from. The internet is still an exciting and mentally stimulating place if you know where to look.
The one trap I find myself in is the tendency to be hyper focused on the new. For podcasts, there is so much I haven’t listened to from the past decade, but there are also more and more great new shows coming out all the time. I want to be the person that helps get the word out there about some great new indie show, or some fascinating piece from an established institution that could easily go past people’s radar.
I would like to take a moment to counterbalance this pattern I’ve fallen into.
My goal with learning new things is to understand how the world works better. I want to constantly update my mental models. The problem with big ideas is that it's hard to know them when you see them.
Time is the best arbiter on true influence.
If I read a good book or listen to a fascinating podcast, there is no way I’ll remember the details years down the road. But if there is a big idea I can take away from it that I will remember, that’s a win. Using the Cosmos series from Carl Sagan as an example, I can’t recall many of the details of the documentary series, but what I do remember is that it opened up a door in my brain. One that said, “Come through here to realize there is an unlimited amount of wonder in the universe.”
I think that’s the goal for many life-long learners. Not to cram info into your brain for trivia night, but to learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know and to engage with the world around you in new ways.
For anyone who loves to learn, it’s worth reflecting on the question, “What are the pieces of media that have continued to change the course of my life for the better years later?”
In my effort to think through that very question, I’ve set a few arbitrary rules for myself:
No looking at notes. When I put my newsletter together, or write year end reviews, I rely heavily on my notes and listening/reading/watching history to help me remember what I've even been doing over the past few weeks. This list should purely be what I can remember. If I can remember specifics years later, that's a testament to the power of the idea.
Focus solely on ideas that have changed my way of thinking over the past 3-4 years. This is not an exercise in listing my favorites, or the best. It's more about world-view shaping, which is different. And keep it limited to just the things I came across in the timeframe I've been curating content.
Don’t kick myself for forgetting something. I guarantee tomorrow I’ll realize I forgot to include something that really should be on this list. I like to ensure diversity in thoughts and voices when I consider my curation, but this is purely what happens to come to mind when I sit down to reflect, for better or worse.
Keep the list short(ish). These are only the big ideas on the “most impactful” side of the spectrum, not an all encompassing list.
So after sitting, thinking, and trying extremely hard not to cheat by looking at notes and previous writings, here are the things that have most become part of my DNA over the past few years of curating brain-hurting content, broken up by category.
PODCASTS (shows or series)
I have listened to every episode of this show over the past five years or so. To me Planet Money exemplifies the power of narrative non-fiction to teach how the world works better than any other show.
Money isn’t real. Its ability to be useful depends on the strength of the shared belief system underpinning it. For example, correcting runaway inflation is a matter of fixing public confidence, not following some formula from the middle of a textbook.
Ignore the DOW JONES. Headlines love tracking the ups and downs of the DOW JONES, but it is a bad indicator because of the non-useful group of companies that comprise it. Instead look at the S&P 500 or total stock market, and do so over a long period of time.
Economics isn’t about numbers or textbooks, it's about people. Messiness and irrationality and all.
The economy and the stories contained within is one of the best frameworks for understanding how the world works in general.
Nobody fully understands the economy. Experts can’t predict the market. Nobody knows the full scale of how globalization affects even one slice of the consumer market, like actually understanding what goes into making a t-shirt.
A multi-part series from Scene on Radio that takes a look at the history of how the modern idea of whiteness and blackness was invented out of whole cloth for racist reasons. This whole series puts racism, the history of slavery, and the modern state of affairs into such clear focus that I can honestly say I didn’t know how much I didn’t know before hand. I still don’t know much, but the gap is more visible to me.
Understanding racism isn’t about understanding who the people are who are likely to shout racial epithets, it’s about understanding the history of the structures and institutions all around us.
Saying you don’t “see color” is not helpful, and actually counterproductive in many ways.
Two Africans can easily be more genetically diverse from each other than an African and a European are. Stop acting like any group of people is homogenous.
This is by far one of the most intense podcast listening experiences I’ve had. It is raw and not easy listening. It’s an audio memoir full of family interviews about the abuse within a family and how the effects ripple outwards under the surface.
Abuse plays out in complicated ways, and many people are suffering under the surface with issues they needlessly blame themselves for.
Similar to Silent Waves above in that it is an incredibly personal memoir show, but about mental illness and depression. You will feel what the host is going through in a way text can't convey.
Properly helping someone with major depression and suicidality is challenging because of how hard it is to spot in someone else and to admit in yourself. But it takes just as much seriousness and resources to address as someone with a broken back.
A weekly show that is on the longer side, but it has become an absolute “must-listen” for me. This show has done more to increase my knowledge of how science works and how to think critically than anything else.
Science is a process, not a set of facts.
Changing your worldview based on new, better information should be worn like a badge of honor.
If pseudoscience worked, it would be called science.
Understanding how to parse hyped science headlines from reasonable ones is a crucial skill for any modern media consumer. A good rule of thumb: scientists are reluctant to claim anything, but university PR departments (where those scientists work) are eager to claim everything.
All I knew about Elizabeth Gilbert a few years ago was that she wrote Eat, Pray, Love. I had assumed that the book and her whole worldview probably wasn’t for me. While researching shows for a playlist about creativity I was doing for Podcast Brunch Club, I came across this short run series meant as a promotion for her newest book, Big Magic (which is about creativity). I still haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but I am now a huge fan of hers and actually very much appreciate her worldview.
There is one idea that comes up a lot in this series of interviews with creative people. Follow your curiosity. I absolutely love this idea, particularly as a better alternative to “follow your passion.” It’s a common chicken and egg argument with “following your passion.” What if you are not sure what you are passionate about? But everyone has curiosity, and it can be followed without any real goal in mind. You never know where it might take you. It’s been my guiding principle ever since I came across it.
PODCASTS (specific episodes)
I haven’t listened in a few years, but when I first got into podcasting, I listened to probably the first 100 episodes of this show. This episode specifically is one of the few times I can point to one piece of audio as being extremely influential. Kevin Kelly is the founder of Wired and a pretty interesting dude. He didn’t start writing until his early 30’s, and his philosophy on why writing is important and why everyone should try it really impacted me. I might not have written ever again after college if not for this episode.
Writing helps focus the mind and helps you figure out what you actually think about something.
You are never too old to start viewing yourself as a writer, no matter your previous lack of writing.
A great show about psychology where I learned all sorts of things and took tons of notes along the way. There is one concept that has stuck with me more than any other. It colors how I see all non-medical research and helps partly explain the replicability crisis that psychology is facing.
There is an acronym that explains who the majority of published research for the social sciences are actually studying. It’s WEIRD. I promised not to cheat so it pains me that I can’t remember the entire acronym, but Western, Educated, Industrialized and Democratic are the words that come immediately to mind. What is the R?!!! Regardless of the R, the idea is that basically most university research is done on easily accessible college students. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but just that you can’t look at most research as some kind of given across all parts of the world. You can’t extrapolate something as a universal human trait when only a very specific type of person has been studied. [Note: the R is for Rich. Of course! Aaarg why couldn't I think of it.]
Ministry of Ideas is kind of the epitome of what I like to recommend in the newsletter: indie, philosophical, and narrative non-fiction. This episode is one in particular I frequently think about.
Characters in Young Adult fantasy and science fiction often have a more realistic psychological grounding than in traditional novels. It’s easy to dismiss something like Harry Potter as childish fantasy in comparison to Literature, but I could relate to the emotional rollercoaster that Harry, Hermione, and Ron went on better than any "realistic" characters from books I was forced to read in high school or college.
I’m interested in heuristics and fallacies, and our overall capacity to overestimate our abilities. This book is the one-stop shop for all of this type of knowledge. Kahneman's life work detailed in this tome is the grandaddy to countless research grand-babies. Sometimes they are entire fields of research, like behavioral psychology.
There was SO MUCH in this book, but the major rule of thumb I can confidently take away is that we are not as rational as we think we are, and there are countless studies to prove it.
Another idea that sticks with me is that of expertise. To be an expert at something, you need:
To be in a situation to make judgments involving your field of expertise over and over again.
There to be a relatively short feedback loop around if you are right or not. This builds expert intuition. If someone is claiming expertise in something that they can't get frequent feedback on, ignore them.
There was a year or so that I heard so much about this book, and I’m glad I finally caved in and checked it out. It’s a detailed history of our evolution over the past 2 million years, and it takes many strands of ideas and places them into a vivid narrative.
Stories are everything. Our ability to participate in shared storytelling and to form culture is the defining characteristic of humanity. Not only is religion a form of shared storytelling, but so is civilization itself, along with government and every single artifact of society.
After exploring some early sci-fi classics, this was honestly a breath of fresh air. Le Guin was way ahead of many of her male contemporaries in her depiction of gender and progressive ideas.
Science fiction is one of the most useful ways to explore complicated ideas. It's much more than a way to showcase futuristic/alternate settings.
Derek Muller did his physics PhD around how to effectively communicate scientific concepts with videos. One of his findings was that watching other people struggle with a concept can help you grasp it yourself. This seed of an idea turned into what is now one of the most popular science channels on YouTube. I thought his early series on inertia was great at the time I watched it, but I couldn't have predicted that it would literally infect my brain. I think about it constantly, many years later.
Inertia is not momentum. It’s not gravity. It’s its own thing. An inherent property of mass. Things in motion tend to stay in motion. Things at rest tend to stay at rest. This concept was crystallized in my brain by the way these short videos unfolded, something I hadn't realized my physics class failed to do. Inertia is used within metaphors all the time, and now I actually intuitively get what they mean.
I had many mind blowing experiences while binge watching Vsauce videos years ago, but one stands out that I think about all the time.
We have no intuitive concept of large numbers. The odds are extremely good that there has NEVER been two decks of cards shuffled in identical order, ever in the history of all casinos, poker games, etc. If this is a new idea for you, you will most certainly disagree with it. But learning about the largeness of 52 factorial is kind of hilarious. If a deck of cards has been shuffled into a new order every millisecond since the Big Bang, there would be literally no dent made into the amount of possible combinations left. The clip that starts at the time-stamped link above is one of my favorite things ever on the internet.
I link to so many articles in the newsletter, but they don’t tend to be from a consistent writer or publication. The Wait But Why blog is an exception and something I link to frequently. Creator Tim Urban has slowed way down in his output, mainly focusing lately on super long posts, but you are sure to find many gems while perusing the archive.
Graham’s number is mind boggling large. It’s a first step in getting in the right headspace for understanding what infinity means.
Visualizing your life into weeks is a terrifying and eye opening experience.
Let your future self deal with the consequences of saying yes to something you know you should do (like agreeing to do a TED Talk).
It’s worth thinking about what makes you, you.
Here's to Another 100
I love sharing educational things, but I ultimately listen and read because I want to understand how the world works. Not to learn facts and figures, but to gain an understanding. It’s hard to know which pieces of content will stick in the brain, but the journey is fun either way.
You almost have to let any idea sit for a solid year before knowing if it was truly a BIG IDEA or just a cool factoid. And maybe one person's forgettable factoid is another person's BIGGEST IDEA.
Lastly, a big shout out to all you creators out there making the world smarter in this time of anxiety-inducing social media feeds that are never ending.