Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins (#413)

“If you need to measure, you’ve failed.”
— Tyler Cowen

Professor Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) has a personal moonshot: to teach economics to more people than anyone else in the history of the world—and he might just succeed. In addition to his regular teaching at George Mason University, Tyler has blogged every day at Marginal Revolution for almost 17 years, helping to make it one of the most widely read economics blogs in the world.

Tyler cocreated Marginal Revolution University, a free online economics education platform thats reached millions. He is also a bestselling author of more than a dozen books, a regular Bloomberg columnist, and host of the popular Conversations with Tyler podcast, where he examines the work and worldviews of thinkers like Martina Navratilova, Neal Stephenson, Reid Hoffman, and many more.

His latest project is Emergent Ventures, a $5 million fund to support entrepreneurs who have big ideas on how to improve society.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can also watch the conversation on YouTube. 

#413: Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins


This episode is brought to you by NutriBullet. NutriBullet is the affordable, easy-to-use, easy-to-clean blender that was first recommended to me by entrepreneur Noah Kagan when I interviewed him for the podcast. Its signature blending process transforms high-fiber veggies, nuts, seeds, and fruits into silky, nutrient-dense smoothies (or protein shakes, savory soups, and dips) that are easy to digest and absorb.

Now, the engineers at NutriBullet have created an incredibly convenient upgrade named the NutriBullet Blender Combo. This device is their most versatile yet, allowing you to effortlessly switch between single-serve and full-size blending—everything that you know and love about the classic device, plus all the performance and capacity you expect from a full-size blender. Don’t settle for blenders that leave your smoothies filled with chunks. Get the NutriBullet Blender Combo, and introduce your veggies and fruits to 1,200 watts. It easily gets the job done. And for you, my dear listeners, NutriBullet is offering 20% off of all products on its website. To get your 20% off, just go to NutriBullet.com/Tim!

This episode is also brought to you by ExpressVPN. Ive been using ExpressVPN since last summer, and I find it to be a reliable way to make sure that my data is secure and encrypted, without slowing my Internet speed. If you ever use public Wi-Fi at, say, a hotel or a coffee shop (where I often work and as many of my listeners do), youre often sending data over an open network, meaning no encryption at all.

One way to ensure that all of your data is encrypted and cant be easily read by hackers is by using ExpressVPN. All you need to do is download the ExpressVPN app on your computer or smartphone and then use the Internet just as you normally would. You click one button in the ExpressVPN app to secure 100% of your network data. Use my link ExpressVPN.com/Tim today and get an extra three months free on a one-year package!

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear an episode with someone who consumes books as voraciously as Tyler? Check out my interview with Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe, in which we discuss being raised free-range,” Ethiopian televisions, speedier decision-making, the siren song of high praise, Greek-speaking monks, worldview development, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download.)


  • Connect with Tyler Cowen:

Marginal Revolution | Conversations with Tyler | Twitter


  • Who is Tyler Cowen? [07:40]
  • How does Tyler pronounce “economics,” and why is the subject his teaching vehicle of choice? What is he really trying to convey? [09:14]
  • Tyler says that economics is parasitical on anthropology. What does he mean by this? [10:44]
  • What did playing chess for money teach young Tyler? [11:40]
  • What is meta-rationality? [12:57]
  • As a self-confessed hyperlexic, how does Tyler think about parsing information and sources around something like the current COVID-19 coronavirus news? [13:48]
  • How can one cultivate the ability to remain meta-rational during times of duress or panic? [15:51]
  • How does Tyler use Twitter Search as a truth-generating mechanism? [17:36]
  • A question Tyler likes to ask people is: “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” What does he mean by this, and how does he practice his own scales? [18:35]
  • What fiction books might Tyler recommend to people — particularly the nonfiction purists among us — who haven’t read fiction in a while? [20:49]
  • Tyler often listens to what he considers complex music in an effort to “forestall mental laziness.” What does he consider complex music? [21:36]
  • What does Tyler’s daily writing practice look like, and how does he find a way to integrate email into the process in an enriching — rather than a distracting and time-sucking — way? [22:47]
  • What symptoms might indicate that Tyler’s writing has strayed into undesirable territory? [25:43]
  • How does Tyler compose first drafts? [26:49]
  • Elaborations on two of Tyler’s 12 Rules for Life. [27:46]
  • Putting into practice the rule to “Learn how to learn from those who offend you,” what has Tyler learned from Nobel laureate Paul Krugman? [28:58]
  • What former position or belief has Tyler changed his mind about lately? What are his next steps to better understanding the situation’s complexities? [30:21]
  • What percentage of Tyler’s writing makes it to a published state — online or otherwise? [33:32]
  • Tyler spent a dozen years or so only watching television in Spanish (and sometimes still does). What does he find to be the benefits of cultivating languages — and wrapping his brain around concerns expressed — outside of his native English? [34:12]
  • In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler posits that our society has become stagnant and overly cautious. What does he believe we can do on an individual level to break this pattern? [36:31]
  • A major decision Tyler made that has had a positive impact on his life, and the framework that led to his commitment to blog daily for the past 17 years. [39:26]
  • What was the positive feedback loop on the daily blogging experience that kept Tyler going for years before it started really gaining traction? [41:47]
  • While the readership of Marginal Revolution has remained strong in a post-blogging world, Tyler now hosts a podcast called — appropriately enough — Conversations with Tyler. What can a first-time listener expect from a typical episode, and what does Tyler gain from doing this show for free? [42:34]
  • Immersing himself fully in the works of his subjects before interviewing them on his podcast, how did Tyler prepare for Neal Stephenson, an author famed for his resistance to the confines of brevity? How challenging was this prep in comparison to prep for other guests? [44:25]
  • Tyler shares some insight into how he’s preparing for future guest Emily St. John Mandel, the Station Eleven novelist who coincidentally wrote about a very topical subject: pandemics. [46:47]
  • While he is a voracious reader, why is Tyler hesitant to recommend specific books to people? What does he try to encourage instead? [47:53]
  • What resources might Tyler suggest to someone who wants to cultivate their meta-rational muscles? [49:54]
  • Aside from blogging and podcasting, what other projects is Tyler working on at the moment? [52:21]
  • Since starting the podcast, what has Tyler learned about the art of interviewing? [53:20]
  • “Browser tabs don’t lie.” What are Tyler’s open browser tabs right now? [56:31]
  • What are Tyler’s meta-rational thoughts on the current coronavirus news? With so much disparate information coming in from an overwhelming number of sources, how does he increase the resolution on these puzzle pieces to get a clearer idea — rather than an incomprehensible distortion — of the big picture? [57:10]
  • While following this particular news cycle, what sources does Tyler consider to be reliable and level-headed? [1:01:12]
  • With so many projects already on the table, why did Tyler choose to create Emergent Ventures? How does it differ from other philanthropic efforts being made today, and what promising ventures has it bolstered so far? [1:02:29]
  • What would Emergent Ventures’ success look like to Tyler? [1:05:32]
  • What are some of the most controversial views or perspectives Tyler currently holds? [1:06:25]
  • Does Tyler have any favorite failures that contributed to his current success, or has he enjoyed a lifelong lucky run of even-keeled progress? [1:07:51]
  • If Tyler considers himself in a consistent range of “weirdly never unhappy,” does he ever have feelings that he prefers not to feel that come to mind? [1:10:43]
  • Does Tyler have resources or advice for people who might seek to exist somewhere along his “weirdly never unhappy” spectrum? Is it as easy as adopting some kind of talisman — and if so, is there anything wrong with that? Does Tyler have his own talismans? [1:11:57]
  • How does Tyler choose guests for his podcast? Who’s on his wishlist? [1:16:58]
  • Has Tyler taken on any new behaviors or habits that have had a nontrivial impact on his life? [1:18:15]
  • How has a commitment to being kinder played out for Tyler, and why did this become a priority? [1:19:22]
  • What would Tyler’s billboard (or widely-broadcast message) say? Who would be his target audience, and why might this seem an odd choice for someone who considers himself an agnostic leaning toward atheism? [1:21:05]
  • Tyler asks me a few questions. First up: how do I restore lost focus? [1:25:29]
  • Do I think cold exposure is partly a placebo or talisman, or do I think it works on a more quantifiable level? [1:27:03]
  • Do I fear ending up in an equilibrium where I say no to too many things, and if so, how do you avoid this? [1:28:11]
  • Do I worry that too many of my friends are highly successful people? [1:30:19]
  • Tyler and I share some of our favorite movies, and I mark the therapeutic value of film and fiction to people who are prone to depression and hyper rumination. [1:32:29]
  • If I could take a year off from all responsibilities, how would I choose to spend it? [1:35:21]
  • How much are Tyler and I alike versus being different? [1:36:51]
  • As someone with an interest in traveling the historical routes of pilgrims, what do I find of most value in religion? How do pilgrimages, language-learning, and skill acquisition all fit into what Tyler calls the “unified theory” of me? [1:40:09]
  • What is the unified theory of Tyler? [1:49:15]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:52:11]