with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 203: True things, useful things, and the differences between them (with Derek Sivers)

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March 28, 2024

Is nothing objectively true? What kinds of things are we trying to communicate with the stories we tell? Why do we feel the need to take a side on every issue? Which sorts of issues should be tied to our identities? How can we set the definitions for terms in a conversation, if possible? Should people just believe whatever works for them? Is it better to try to compensate for our biases or to reduce them? Should we strive to have lower confidence in ourselves and our abilities? How should we think about assigning blame when something goes wrong? When should we say yes or no to new opportunities? To what degree should we try to optimize our lives?

Derek Sivers is an author of philosophy and entrepreneurship known for his surprising, quotable insights and pithy, succinct writing style. Formerly a musician, programmer, TED speaker, and circus clown, he sold his first company for $22 million and gave all the money to charity. Sivers’ books (How to Live, Hell Yeah or No, Your Music and People, and Anything You Want) and newest projects are at his website:

Further reading:

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today! In this episode, Spencer speaks with Derek Sivers about objective truth, formulating opinions, and judging fault.

SPENCER: Derek, welcome.

DEREK: Thanks, Spencer, I'm excited to talk to you.

SPENCER: Yeah, me too. And I want to jump right into something that I suspect we're going to disagree on a lot, which is this question: is it true that almost nothing is objectively true?

DEREK: Ah, so I've got this on my mind a lot lately. It's the subject of the book that I'm writing right now. I think we can all just choose where to draw that line between what you consider true and what you consider not true. But for me, I find it useful to draw the line as far to one side as possible, so that basically only if it's completely, absolutely, necessarily, objectively, empirically, always true, and not from any particular perspective — even an alien observing us through a telescope from outer space would say that it's true — then I consider it true. Otherwise, I consider it not true, which doesn't mean it's false. It just means it doesn't fit that criteria; it's not necessarily always objectively empirically true. So the reason I think it's important to draw that line as far as you can to one side is because, once you just say something is true, it closes it, no further questions. As soon as you say something is not necessarily true, it opens it to further questioning. You can reconsider it; you can consider a different perspective. So I just find it useful to consider almost everything to be not necessarily true.

SPENCER: Can we divide things into false statements, true statements, and then conditionally true, which is stuff in the middle where it will sometimes be true, but it depends on the context? Does that capture this idea of not necessarily true, that middle ground of, well, it's true conditionally, it's been true in certain circumstances, it's true with the right assumptions?

DEREK: Right. It's funny. When I'm talking about this with friends, I say, look, we live in a social world where people say things like, "This city's dangerous," or, "You need to call your mother." [laughs] And these things are all not necessarily true, right? So I say, we live in a social world, unless you're a scientist [laughs], and then of course, you're sitting there dealing with more absolutes, like, 'Okay, this is how many times this thing happened.' Or let's look at something that's in the news, maybe not this year, but two years ago like, "This is how many votes this candidate got in the election." That's just something that has a right and a wrong answer. That's what I mean; an alien from outer space could observe this and say, "Yes, that's how many votes that person got." This is not a subjective thing that's up for debate. But even science, any good scientist will say that you're aiming to be less and less wrong, that even Newton's Laws weren't thoroughly true to the end, but then they were useful enough to a certain point. We just keep making models that get closer and closer to being true or to be less and less wrong. Am I getting that right?

SPENCER: Yeah, that makes sense to me. But I'm wondering, what do you see as the problem with people believing in objective truths? Do you see people falling into certain pitfalls?

DEREK: We all have objective truths. But I'm suggesting people push the line further to question more things in our social world, whether it's, "I'm no good at that," or, "You need to fight to defend your country," things like this that people say as facts, but are really just one perspective. To them, it feels like a cold, hard fact: "This is just true: you need to respect your elders. That's just a fact. There is no questioning that." But I like to turn all of these into questions or, "Don't be so sure about that. Let's question that. Let's look at that and reconsider that. There might be a point of view where you should not respect your elders. There might be a point of view where you should not obey the law." And we need to stay open-minded to consider those from another perspective. That's what I'm on about.

SPENCER: This makes me think about how we are story-based machines, we humans. And the way I'm interpreting what you're saying is that we have these stories and we treat these stories as other facts, but they're actually just stories.

DEREK: Yeah, and I started thinking about why people do that, and then I realized when people communicate socially, they don't communicate facts. They're communicating perspectives. See, because facts are as boring as dirt. If you were to only speak in the facts, you would just be exchanging data information. Computers do that to each other; humans exchange perspectives because the reason we communicate is more often for social bonding. Nobody bonds over facts; you bond over shared perspectives. Or people are wanting validation for their feelings. Maybe they feel a certain way. Let's say, "My ex was evil. My ex was an asshole." And they want somebody to go, "Yeah, he really was. You're so right. You were right and he was wrong." They want validation for their feelings. This is why we connect, why we communicate, also social signaling, people sharing their point of view on something to help identify their tribe and bond with their tribe. That's why people are communicating. It's never the facts. It's all about sharing your perspective on it. But these perspectives are shared as if they are truth, and usually go unquestioned. And that's why I find this subject fascinating lately, to question these things and realize that's not truth; that's just one perspective.

SPENCER: If we imagine tribal people 20,000 years ago, sitting around the campfire and exchanging stories, some of those stories might be about how to survive, like, "Oh, I went down to the river today and I saw these berries, and I thought they were this kind of berry, and I ate some and then I got sick." That seems like a very fact-based story. Although it's a story, it's rooted in the facts of reality. And then there might be other stories where, "Oh, I saw so-and-so and they were interacting with this person, and I think they were flirting. What does this mean in terms of their other partner?" and so on. And that story is more about social reality. And then you might imagine, there's a third kind of story that's really about identity, "Oh, I saw one of the people from the other tribe, and they're so bad. And I'm such a good tribe member over here." [Sivers laughs] I guess what I'm getting at is, even though we're story-based machines, it seems like there are different kinds of stories trying to impart different sorts of information.

DEREK: Yes, totally agree. And I love the way that you broke it down like that. By the way, I'm happy for you to tell me I'm full of shit and wrong on this. Sometimes, we write a book because we've got something we want to tell the world. But this book for me is a subject I just wanted to dive deeper into and learn more about. So I actually started writing this book. Well, I started (quote, unquote) 'writing' this book a year ago, which really meant that, for the past year, I've been reading a ton about this subject of subjectivity. Also, I really knew nothing about religion, so I've been spending the last year learning about the religions of the world and their beliefs, trying to understand why people believe what they believe, looking at the world a bit like an anthropologist, and the thing you just said — about around the campfire and different kinds of stories — I've been thinking about a fictitious translation machine, so that when somebody says something like, "Oh, don't do that. It's a disaster. You're going to fail. No, I highly recommend you don't do that," what they're really saying is, "I tried that once and I was disappointed." That's the factual story. If they're speaking just in facts, it's, "I tried that once, and I was disappointed." But instead, the version of the story that people usually tell is predicting the future. They say, "Oh, that won't work for you. You will fail if you do that," or "Doing that is the worst." You know what I mean? They turn what could be a factual story and spin it into a certainty about the future.

SPENCER: They're projecting into a generalization. They're going from facts to generalization. It's the generalization that they've constructed that they're sharing.

DEREK: Again, because it's more the human social bonding instead of just communicating the facts. I often also think about the job of a police clerk at a police station late at night, when somebody comes in and says, "Hey, what this guy did to me... He walks up, and he's just all like, 'Yo! I'm [growls],' and I'm looking at him. And I'm like, 'This guy looks like trouble.'" And you can imagine the police clerk sitting there going, "So a man walked into the store. That's what you're saying. Once we take away all this interpretation, the actual observable fact is, the man walked into the store where you were. Okay, next fact, please." And can you imagine doing this on a social human level with all the things people say about, "This is bad and let me tell you what's going to happen in this world. This country's going to hell," all these things that sound like certainty about the future. Or it gets interesting when you start thinking about the past, too. We tell stories about the past but we don't just list events; we list events with our interpretation of what those events meant, or how we saw those events. But there's always more to the story; people filter their stories about the past. So the past isn't true, meaning necessarily, objectively, absolutely true. The future isn't true. Perspectives aren't true. I just find this very useful to remind ourselves how little of what people say is true, and how little of what we think is true.

SPENCER: It seems like part of what's going on is compression. If you could list a bunch of facts about what happened about (let's say) some event in history — World War Two — you could just list a ton of facts, thousands of facts, millions of facts. But that actually wouldn't help someone understand it that well. So you need to do some compression to say, well, what does it all mean? How do the facts fit together into something that is a causal story of A happened, and then B happened, and this led to C, which was the thing we actually care about. And in doing so, you have to pick the facts to focus on, of the millions of facts that you could choose from, and the particular relationships to highlight and those not to highlight, and that seems, in part, necessary. It seems that there is no way to just give someone everything. There is always going to be a selection process.

DEREK: Spencer, that's a beautiful way of putting it. I love that. Thank you.

SPENCER: Thanks. [laughs] Another thing this makes me think about is the way that the same exact story can have different connotations. You gave this example of a person going into the police clerk and describing someone walking into the bar. But take the word 'slut;' what does the word 'slut' actually mean? It's something like, "I think that this person is interested in having sex with a bunch of people, and it's bad and I judge them for it." Whereas, someone else could describe it in very neutral terms, "Oh, this person has had 20 partners," or 50 partners, or whatever to them is a lot of partners. Or someone could describe it in a positive way; they could say, "This person is really sex-positive," or, "This person is really amazing at sex." A lot of times, we take a fact and then we just add some emotion on top of it and our words sometimes represent that emotion.

DEREK: I love that. You're right; it can be built into a term itself. Even if it sounds like we're not using adjectives, some words have the judgment built into it. That's a great point.

SPENCER: This is part of why I think one has to be really careful in communicating with loaded words because you just are gonna get all of these bundles of associations, even if you say, "Well, I'm gonna use the word 'slut' here but I don't mean it in a bad way." It's like, no, you've already failed. [both laugh]

DEREK: Right. Just a few months ago — funny timing — I went to Israel for a week in late September, just a week or two before the Gaza stuff happened in October. Before going there, I read a book that was the history of Israel, and then I read a different book that was the history of Palestine. And the history of Israel book was wonderful. It was fascinating, but so deeply flawed, because it was an almost perfect book, except she so often used loaded adjectives to talk about the 'brave, courageous founders,' and the 'cowardly, timid terrorists' that attacked them. And it's like, "Oh, you could have been so much more believable if you just edited out a few of those adjectives." What's funny, though, is the history of Palestine book was — I don't want to use the word 'autistic,' which might have some kind of judgment to it — but it was like the stereotype of the guy that will just list out 1000 facts with no social awareness that everybody has left the room. So the Palestine book was talking about Israel in these terms, delegitimizing it, saying, "It's not even a real place. In fact, here's a list of 450 people that changed their names from their birth name to sound more Jewish when they founded Israel in 1948, and here are their names." And the next 35 pages are lists of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of names, what it used to be, what they changed it to, and what their role was in the founding of Israel.

SPENCER: Reminds me of the Bible a little bit. "And then so-and-so begot so-and-so..." [laughs]

DEREK: Deuteronomy, yeah. And I thought, "Oh, man, see, this book is flawed, too." I love what you said earlier about how we need to compress to tell a story; otherwise, it's just 1000 facts. So the history of Palestine book listed 1000s of facts where I wanted a story. And the history of Israel book gave me more of a biased story than I wanted.

SPENCER: And neither were what you were hoping for? You wanted the unbiased story?

DEREK: The Israel book was almost perfect. In the title, it's called Israel, the World's Most Misunderstood Country. That's the title of the book. I guess there was a hint right there in the title that there was going to be some editorializing here, but it was an almost perfect book. I would have just edited out maybe 30 or 40 adjectives in the book, and it would have been perfect.

SPENCER: Unfortunately, I think it's one of those topics where it's almost impossible to get someone who's really a third party who's neutral, who's just analyzing it from that perspective. And I think maybe in practice, one of the best things you can do is dig into each perspective, try to deeply embody it temporarily, until you can speak like an ordinary Palestinian citizen, you can speak like a member of Hamas, you can speak like a conservative Jewish person living in Israel, you can speak like a liberal Jewish person living in Israel, and so on. And once you have all those perspectives, it doesn't mean they're all equally valid, it doesn't mean they're all equally correct, but to actually get the closest you can to being unbiased, you should be able to represent every view and then step back and say, "Okay, now that I can represent every view, what is actually the triangulation of what's really going on here?" Almost impossible to do.

DEREK: Yeah, you might not even need to do the triangulation. I've been thinking about... By the way, I just want to pause for a second to say, when I was just there in Tel Aviv in September, it was my second visit to Tel Aviv, but my previous one was 19 years ago. And I loved it so much that... Originally, I had intended (I think) five days in Tel Aviv, and then I was going to go into the West Bank for two days. But actually, I enjoyed it so much, I was like, "I'm coming back next year and I'm going to spend a whole week in the West Bank. I've spent almost a week in Tel Aviv. Next year, I'm gonna go spend two days in Jerusalem then five to seven days in Palestine." And then now, with the Gaza stuff, it looks like that might not be so possible. But what you just described is what I was hoping to do, like, "Okay, I've sat and met with 34 Israelis here in Tel Aviv. Now I want to go to the West Bank, and sit down and meet with at least 34 Palestinians that grew up here, that can tell me their perspective." I want to, like you say, embody. I want to understand both. I want to really deeply have friends in both and understand the Palestine point of view on this whole thing, and have a personal connection on both sides. That's what I was hoping to do by coming back for longer next year. But oops, we've got to remember that we might not... Expect to do something in the future, you might not be able to. So in hindsight, I wish I had done it then. It's one of my minor regrets.

SPENCER: I wonder though, if taking that approach would actually piss off both sides. What do you think about that?

DEREK: Oh, that's fine. [laughs] I mean, yeah, it's such a heated subject. I'll tell you actually a real concrete thing that happened. On my way into Tel Aviv, I spent a day in Dubai first, and specifically spent the day with an Emirati man from United Arab Emirates, whose name is Muhammad Qasim, an old-school Arab guy, family goes back to Abu Dhabi and the Saudi Arabia Peninsula over 1000 years. But he's a very open-minded guy that's really into understanding traditional Arab culture. He recently had just gone to Palestine. I was asking him about it, like, "Who should I meet? Who do you know?" So he said, "Oh, yeah, I was just there a couple of weeks ago. But now see, Israel and the United Arab Emirates just recently made an agreement so that basically United Arab Emirates is one of the few countries in the region that acknowledges Israel's existence or legitimacy." So Muhammad was in Palestine eating at a restaurant. And when the restaurant owner found out that he was from United Arab Emirates, he said, "I'm sorry, my friend, you must leave. Get out. I don't want you in my restaurant because you are friends — your country is legitimizing Israel — so if you're friends with them, you can't be friends with me. Get out of my restaurant." And even though Muhammad Qasim is just the nicest damn guy, he just put down his plate and he said, "I acknowledge, I am sorry you're upset. I consider you my brother and I understand you're upset. I will leave your restaurant in full respect." And it was amazing, him telling me that this had happened and his perspective on it because, to him, he has Israeli friends and he has Palestinian friends and some people are going to be upset. So that's okay. It's good to understand why people are upset and not avoid it.


SPENCER: Imagine if someone murdered a family member of yours, and then later you found out someone who is friends with the murderer. It'd be very natural to be, "How could you associate with that person?" And I think we can all understand that on an individual level. But I think that, in something like the Israel and Palestinian conflict, it triggers that but at a group level. It's like, "That group murdered the people I love, or the loved ones of the people I love. How could you associate with them?" And I think at the individual level, if someone's actually hanging out with a murderer who murdered one of your family members, I fully support it. At the group level, it becomes trickier because suddenly, now, everyone in the group is to blame, which is unfortunately, I think, a vast oversimplification that can cause tremendous harm.

DEREK: Right. Yeah. It's also values. If you think, like you did, down to the personal individual level, there are some people that believe you should not even associate with that person that wronged someone I know. Or somebody else would say, "Oh, my belief is, there's two sides or there's more sides to every story. If you want to be friends with him, go ahead. I can't be friends with him, but that's just me. Do what you want. I won't hold it against you if you're friends with him." Years and years ago, when I was in the music business, I was running a company called CD Baby that was pretty successful. I was the founder and so everybody in the music business treated me really nicely. I would walk into a room and the VIP would say, "Derek Sivers! Hey, man, how are you doing?" and be really nice to me. And a publicist I once met said something about this guy, (let's just say) this VIP. She said, "Oh, he's such a jerk. He's such an asshole. He's so rude to me." I said, "Wait, what? Are we talking about the same guy?" She goes, "Yeah, he's nice to you because you're Derek Sivers. I'm not you so he treats me like shit." "No way. Hold on, I want to see this in action," because we were right there at the party with this guy. So instead, I walked up with my publicist friend, and I was just like, "Hey, Tracy, have you met Thomas?" (Making up the names here.) And he's like, "Oh, Tracy, nice to meet you." And later when we walked away, she goes, "Yeah, he was rude as fuck to me just ten minutes earlier. But now I walk up with you and he's nice." It's funny that everybody, just on a very micro personal level, has their different value systems of, we should be nice to everybody, versus I'm only going to be nice to people that can help me, or I'm only going to be nice to somebody that has never wronged anybody I know, internal value systems of what we believe is right and wrong and what you should do. And that usually comes from observing our parents or peers around us.

SPENCER: Did you find that having people kiss up to you in that industry started to distort your sense of reality?

DEREK: I just saw it all as a game anyway. Often, I didn't know that it was happening at first. The guy I was just talking about, I really thought he was just a really nice guy. But no, he was only nice to me. But on the other hand, then who's to say? Almost everybody in our life that we could think of as nice, is probably mean to somebody else. But we think of them as a nice person; we just don't know the whole story. So then you just zoom out into that big level of, well, then who's to say anything? I don't know. If somebody is nice to me, then they're nice? If they're nice to anybody, then they're nice? Where do you draw the line? How do you define it? When everything becomes so ambiguous like this, there's a tendency to say, "Well, then how do we lock it all down and decide?" Like you just said, the triangulate. Okay, you spend a week in Israel, you spend a week in Palestine, you embody a bunch of different points of view. And then afterwards, you can triangulate and try to figure out what really happened. There's almost this tendency to want to lock it down and decide. But then that's what I just recently started challenging. Maybe we don't. Maybe we just use all of this understanding of different points of view to turn it into a big giant shrug and just say, "Well, see, it just goes to show, there's no one right answer."

SPENCER: The problem is that sometimes you have to make a decision. Then what do you do? [laughs]

DEREK: Ah, right. Well, then, yeah, if you actually have to act on something, then maybe information has to guide your actions.

SPENCER: I agree that a shrug is a pretty appealing thing to do when you don't have to act. You're just like, "Wow, that's complicated. I don't want to be involved. I don't want to make a decision." But sometimes you have to make a decision. Imagine you're Biden; you have to decide. What do you do? Are you gonna give more money to Israel, or you're gonna give money to Palestinians? You're gonna put pressure on Israel?

DEREK: Right, but most of us are not Biden. Yet so many people feel a need to take a side. Whereas, I think it would be healthier, whether in this silly kind of social media — changing your social media icon to be blue and yellow to show that you stand with Ukraine, or to change it to something to show that you're against this, and for this — everybody wants to pick a side. Again, back to the first thing we started talking about, the reason people communicate is for social bonding, for validation. I think it would be healthier if more people just shrugged and said, "You know, that's a complex subject. There are many different points of view on that. Who am I to pick a side? And luckily, we're not Biden; we don't need to act."

SPENCER: I totally agree that people seem to feel pressure to pick a side for social reasons a lot of times, and there's something that can be quite unhealthy about that, if you're just picking a side, trying to signal something or to try to avoid criticism from the people around you who are going to judge you. Obviously, it makes sense to want to blend in and to not get criticized and to want people to like you; that's all very reasonable. It's just that, if you're professing to have a viewpoint that you don't really have, then it seems like there's something problematic about that. On the point of triangulation, I find it very healthy to try to have an opinion but be very flexible in that opinion, knowing that you don't know that much and being ready to adjust it quickly as you get new evidence. In other words, if you don't have an opinion at all on something, there's a certain mental laziness to that, where you're not even trying to take all the facts and put them together. If you have an opinion, but you stick to it really strongly, then you're being unjustified because, well, you don't really know very much. Why are you sticking to your guns on something you don't really know much about? To me, what I feel is the healthiest middle ground — for myself, anyway — is to form an opinion but know that I don't know that much and be very quick to update it as I get new information.

DEREK: I like that. I guess it comes from not needing to tie your identity so strongly to a point. If your identity is more like, "I'm Spencer. I'm curious. I'm smart. I like evidence," then that can be your identity instead of, "I stand for Palestine," or, "I'm against you, Russia," and picking a side in the topic du jour. The problem is, I guess, if people feel that their identity is tied to picking a side and, now that they've spoken, they're not going to hear any evidence against what they've tied their identity to, because that threatens their identity. Whereas, yeah, if you keep your identity tied to only 'I'm curious, I'm analytical, I'm open-minded,' that's healthier. I like your description of that.

SPENCER: The danger of tying your identity too much to any of these particular answers to questions is that, sometimes, you're gonna be horribly wrong, and then you're doubling down on something really bad.

DEREK: Yeah, one of my best friends is Jewish in New York City. She was crying last time we talked just a few days ago. She said, "I've actually lost some dear friends in the past month, lost them socially, because they're minorities in America. They feel aligned with (say) the Black Lives Matter movement. And so when this thing in Gaza and Israel happens, they feel emotionally attached to side with the oppressed minority. And so then they take the Gaza/Palestine side, and therefore need to proclaim themselves to be anti-Israel. And so suddenly, friends I've had for 20 years are suddenly mad at me and saying they can't be friends with me anymore because they're mad at Israel and I'm not anti-Israel. So they can't be friends with me anymore. This sucks, man. I'm losing friends. Some of my best friends aren't talking to me anymore because of what's happening in Gaza and Israel, even though I've only been to Israel for a few days of my life. I'm not Israeli. I'm Jewish." But this doesn't feel fair that people are just picking an emotional side and alienating friends because of it.

SPENCER: Yeah, I find that heartbreaking. I find it especially heartbreaking when people are good on both sides of an issue and they're hurting each other. It's like both sides are trying to do something good and right, and the outcome is people are crushed emotionally, but maybe also literally. I think this issue in particular has been so difficult to navigate because there's the perspective of Israelis, ordinary citizens who feel like they've been under attack for much of their lives. Their relatives were attacked in the Holocaust, and they've grown up feeling like others are going to attack them. They have felt literally attacked in their own city with bombings and things like this. So you've got that perspective. Then you have the perspective of ordinary Palestinians who've felt like they've been second-class citizens. They felt like they have been oppressed for as long as they can remember. A lot of them were literally children when Hamas was elected. And so you've got that perspective. Both of those sides, I can just empathize deeply with, and it's just a terrible position to be in, in both of those situations. Then you have Hamas who, from my point of view, Hamas is a group with a very fundamentalist ideology. It's an ideology that is completely antithetical to my values. And so I feel pretty good saying, "Yeah, I really don't believe in what Hamas believes in, fundamentally." But that's very, very different from saying, "I'm opposed to what the ordinary Palestinian thinks or wants," which I think is very different from Hamas.

DEREK: Right. Yeah, for what it's worth, the flawed history of Israel book — I just remember the author's name, Noa Tishby — it's actually a very, very, very good book, if you can roll your eyes at the [laughs] editorializing a bit and just see through that. We're right, I think, to say it's intellectually lazy to just shrug and go, "I don't know. Who am I to know?" But I think I am often intellectually lazy by that definition. See, 'lazy' is one of those words like 'slut.' It's loaded.

SPENCER: [laughs] It's got a negative judgment on the behavior, yeah.

DEREK: Oh, by the way, so is 'smug.' That's a related aside. The word 'smug,' I think, means being proud that your actions are aligned with your values, that you've made yourself proud. It's feeling good about yourself.

SPENCER: Except for the negative judgment around it, right? That's the extra connotation.

DEREK: Right. So I think 'smug'... Yeah, actually, I should talk about that. I'm still writing the book right now. Words like slut, lazy, smug, can actually be neutral words if you just ignore the judgment. Anyway, so, lazy... I've got an 11-year-old boy that is a huge part of my life. I spend at least 30 — sometimes 40 or 50 hours a week — just one-on-one, just me and him, no distractions, all other things off, just me and him doing things together for at least 30 hours a week. And I work on my writing (let's say) at least 40 hours a week, and I read a lot. So between those two things, I don't have a lot of time for other things. I don't play tennis. I'm not learning to speak Italian. The list of what I'm not doing is infinite because I really focus all my time on just a few core things. So when something comes up — let's even just say whether it's Ukraine or American politics or something — and somebody expects me to have an opinion, I just go, "I don't know. I know nothing about it." They're like, "What are you, lazy? What are you, intellectually lazy? Why do you have no opinion?" "Because I don't have infinite time."

SPENCER: You should be an intellectual slut. That's much better.

DEREK: [laughs] There you go. But it's funny that lazy can be smart. I'm a computer programmer and, in programming, often, the term 'lazy' is used in a positive sense. "He's a very lazy programmer," so he finds the easy way to do things, which can be a positive. So I guess it could be the same intellectually to say, "He doesn't think about things he doesn't have to think about," which sometimes we celebrate in little quirky ways, like Einstein just had ten of the same suit; he didn't want to put any brain power towards deciding what to wear that day. Who knows if that's true or not, but people say, "Look at that. There's somebody who's so focused on his work that he's decided that certain things are not worth thinking about." We may think about that positively. That's how I think about most of the current events in the news.

SPENCER: And that's a completely fair point. And I actually think it's very wise to avoid thinking about things that are not in line with what you're trying to do in your life. It's just that if you spent ten hours learning about something and you still have no opinion, I would say, "Well, maybe you should have an opinion, but you should know you've only spent ten hours, not 100 hours or 1000 hours, and be ready to update quickly."

DEREK: Yeah. I guess most of the things that people are all up in arms about in the news, I've hardly spent ten minutes on. I think the Israel thing was just funny because I was just there talking with people for a whole week. I didn't do the usual tourist thing. I didn't go around and sample the sights. Instead, I just met with people. I wasn't there visiting Israel; I was there visiting Israelis. I just sat down with 34 people one-on-one, six people a day, all day long for six or seven days.

SPENCER: What was their intro to you? Did someone just say, "Oh, meet my friend"?

DEREK: No, it's actually just people who know me from my books, who've emailed me over the years. That's actually why I chose to go there. There were so many people in Tel Aviv that had emailed me over the years. I actually would have rather gone to Jerusalem for sightseeing. I think Jerusalem is way more interesting. I find Tel Aviv kind of boring. But Tel Aviv is where all the people were, and I was there to see the people. So yeah, I just got a hotel in Jaffa in a central location, near the best hummus in town — Abu Hassan, where I went every morning for breakfast — and then just sat and talked with people all day long every day for a week and then went off to a conference in Cyprus. That's the reason I was in the region. But yeah, so I guess I feel more connected to this issue in the news in a way. Usually everything else that shows up in the news that everybody gets all up in arms about, I usually have no opinion. But this one, I feel a little more connected to.

SPENCER: It makes perfect sense. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is this idea of believing whatever works for you, which is kind of thematically connected to this 'almost nothing is objectively true,' but it is a bit of a different nuance. So do you think people should just believe whatever works for them?

DEREK: Okay, here's the distinction. Again, I think I might have put some words out into the world prematurely as I was forming my thoughts on this. But it goes like this. In fact, you're the first person that I'm going to ever tell this to. Have you seen the little videos of AI characters learning to walk?


DEREK: Okay, great. I love that the researcher isn't teaching the AI character how to walk. They just create a little stick figure with arms and legs, and just make it exist, and they say, "Okay, your goal is to get over there. Go try a million things until it works." And what's funny is, when you watch these little creatures trying to walk, you could just sit there and usually see what the problem is. One of them is face-down and keeps trying to walk into the ground. Another one is spinning in circles. Another one keeps leaping up so high that it doesn't get anywhere. And for each one of these, you think... Okay, the one that keeps going down to the ground, if I could just put a little helium balloon on his head, just lift him up, then he'd start to see. The one that keeps spinning in circles, if you were to give it some guardrails, that would help and then it would eventually learn how to go straight. And I think of this metaphor with people in the world that are just trying to function, if we use walking to the finish line for an AI character as a metaphor for people just trying to function and do what they want to do and go where they want to go in life. From the outside, you can often see that somebody's got some kind of mistake in their methodology that's impeding their progress from where they want to go. And for those people, you want to give them a little helium balloon on their head or some guardrails, so they don't keep spinning in circles. To me those things, mentally, are beliefs, that if you have a tendency to just stay home (let's say) and not meet any people, but something you want to do in life requires meeting more people, well, then you're going to have to do something in your belief system that's going to make you go out and meet more people. You have to adjust your beliefs somewhat intentionally, like, "I need to believe that it's bad to stay inside," or, "I need to believe that it's good to meet at least three people a week," or, "I need to believe that it's good to talk to strangers and learn about them." You need to adopt these beliefs. So whether that's true or not — whether it's good to meet three strangers a week, or whether it's bad to stay inside and meet nobody — of course, that's not necessarily, objectively, absolutely true or not; you're choosing to adopt a belief because it works for you for now. It's the belief that you need to correct your behavior or guide your behavior in the direction you want to go.

SPENCER: I think I see what you're saying. For a given situation you're in and the given set of traits you have and habits and so on, there could be beliefs that are not true but that help move you in the direction of something that's better for you or help you get your goals more reliably. I guess what I would say there is that, for every belief that might be inaccurate that can move you towards your goals, there probably is another one that's more accurate to the way the world really is that can also get you there. And I have a pretty strong bias towards trying to find the accurate, the truer beliefs that get you towards your goal because I think there are a lot of advantages to those over just any belief that moves you in the direction of your goal. Maybe the number one thing is that beliefs that are truer...and I say 'truer' here, not 'true' because, for the issues we were talking about before, it's not like most beliefs of this kind are going to be 100% true all the time, no matter what. A truer belief is going to tend to be more likely to be true in more contexts, more aligned with reality the way Newtonian mechanics is quite aligned with reality. It's much more aligned with reality than (let's say) theories of phlogiston. But it's not all the way to 100% truth. We know Newtonian mechanics is not true. The advantage that truer beliefs have over less true beliefs is that they actually are also moving you in the direction of reality, and therefore, they're less likely to get you into some weird belief set where you're working against reality. Let me give you an example to make this more concrete. I have a friend who is using daily affirmations and the affirmation she's using when I talked to her was, "Whatever happens to you is exactly what needs to happen to you." And I felt like this is not a very good affirmation. [Derek laughs] She felt it was helpful. She felt it was doing something good for her. But my problem with it is, "Well, but what if it's not what needs to happen to you? What if it's actually totally the opposite of what needs to happen to you?" So what I was suggesting to her: "Can you find other affirmations that also do the good things that you're getting from that one, but that are aligned with the way the world actually works?" It's not like there's a law of the universe that says the things that happen to you are the ones that should be happening to you to help you learn the lesson you need to learn.

DEREK: That's a wonderful example. You've gone bowling, right?

SPENCER: Absolutely.

DEREK: Okay. I think most of us can relate to the thing that happens if you're not a professional bowler. If you go bowling rarely, you grab the ball and you aim for the middle pin, and it bends off to the left. And you think, "Dammit, I must have done something wrong." So next time you get the ball, you aim for the middle pin again; it bends to the left again. You're like, "Agh, okay, I need to compensate for this thing where the ball keeps bending to the left." So now even though this feels wrong — intuitively, I want to aim for the middle — I'm going to make myself aim for the right pin now and hope that it bends into the center. And then it does. You aim for the right pin and, weirdly enough, the ball then bends into the center. So you were going against your intuition and you're doing the thing. You know that the correct thing to do isn't to aim to the right. Eventually, you'd like to get to the point where the muscles of your forearm and your fingers and your grip are aligned so that you know it's the center. But for now, I'm going to aim to the right, and that's working. So I think that's kind of what you're saying.

SPENCER: Well, right. There's a difference between then convincing yourself that, in fact, the right is the center versus knowing, "Oh, wait, no, this is just a useful fiction that is not reflective of reality."

DEREK: That's a good way of putting it. If I were to continue with the metaphor of the AI characters learning to walk, imagine if you suddenly gave the AI characters the ability to help each other, and suddenly the one that was helped by having a little balloon tied to its head went around going to every little AI character going, "Everybody! Balloons! We all need balloons! Everybody put a helium balloon on your head!" "No, no, no, no, no, that was the answer for you. That's what helped you because you were face down on the ground. You needed a helium balloon. Everybody doesn't need helium balloons."

SPENCER: [laughs] That's exactly what people do. Everyone finds one thing that helps them and then they go around shouting, "Everyone needs a helium balloon."

DEREK: Yep. It's the metaphor that, yeah, this is what you needed. It doesn't mean it's true. It's not the answer for everybody. So that's really a big part of what my next book is about, first pointing out how many things in our social world are set as fact but, in fact, are just a perspective, not true. And then the horror of realizing that you're doing this, too. So many things that you think of as just absolutely true — that even your brain is telling you are true — are not actually true. It was just something that you needed to believe in at the moment, but it's not true.


SPENCER: What do you think of what I'm saying about the advantage of believing truer things rather than less true things for their helpfulness? It seems to me that the less true things are more brittle. They may be helping you now but, because they're not as aligned with reality, they're going to do less well, on average, when you go into different situations.

DEREK: I think you're right. I think it's a great insight. For practical use, I'm wondering if that's part of the progress. Maybe like in the bowling example, for now you need to aim to the right just to not make this next roll or this next game a disaster. But hey, for the long term, let's look at just adjusting your grip or whatever; it's gonna take many more hours of training so that you know how to accurately aim towards the middle pin or whatever — start to put a spin on it — whatever you're gonna do for now versus the long term. I guess it depends how involved you want to get. What would be some other real-world examples? Maybe this is just my personal preference; I'm happy to temporarily adopt beliefs that I know are not correct, but they send me in the correct direction. But I'm aware that I'm doing them, things like when I started to learn that most humans have a tendency to believe that they are above average in common everyday things. Interview any number of drivers and you'll find that about 97% of people asked believe that they are above-average drivers. I think they interviewed a bunch of doctors and 96% of doctors said that they felt that they were better than average doctors, and so on, and so on and so on. On the other hand, I think when it came to really difficult things — like chess and I think actually, even math was in here — most people believe that they are below average in math. The things that people believe they're above average in, are everywhere.

SPENCER: Yeah, we ran a study on that, actually.

DEREK: Oh, you did?

SPENCER: Yeah, we gave people 100 different skills. And for each of them, we said, out of 100 people, how many of those 100 do you think you'd be better than at the skill? We found just what you're saying. People think that they're better drivers than average and so on. But the really funny thing is, if we switch it from how good you are at driving to how good you are at race car driving, it flipped to people thinking that they were worse than 50 out of 100 rather than better than 50 out of 100. And again, it goes to the point of difficult things and things you've never done before, people are more likely to underestimate themselves relative to others; whereas, easy things and things you do a lot, people are more likely to overestimate themselves.

DEREK: Spencer, I love that you did that. When I first got your email about having this conversation today, I went to your website, and I was learning about what you'd done. And I so admire that you're taking this approach to things and, instead of just sitting there pontificating, you're going out and collecting a bunch of real-world data for people. I love this. I didn't know that you had done it on this subject. To me, then, when I hear something like this, I think, "Oh, well, I need to correct that cognitive bias." It's not just them; it's also me. If most people do this — if 97% think that they're better than average — well then, I must be one of those 97%. Therefore, to compensate for this bias, I'm going to start to try to assume that I'm below average just in general, when in doubt, assume that I'm below average. And it might not always be true. But I think it's better for me to try to believe that I'm below average to help compensate for this bias.

SPENCER: Ah, I have such a different approach. This is really interesting. My approach is, make predictions about things and then actually track them and see how well my predictions go. Because my goal is not to compensate for the bias by pushing in the other direction but rather, creating an iterative feedback loop where my estimates become more and more accurate. Does that make sense?

DEREK: Yeah, you would do well as an AI character learning to walk. That's the correct way to do it. [both laugh]

SPENCER: Thank you (question mark)? Yeah, so I've been tracking my predictions about things for years. And when I have an important event in my work or my life, I'll try to log a prediction about it.

DEREK: I think that's the ideal way to do it.

SPENCER: Do you think that imagining yourself as being worse than average, does that have negative consequences?

DEREK: I don't know. I find it works for me which, by the way, comes full circle to when you brought up this subject: choosing a belief that works for you. This is very much what I meant. This belief — for example, I'm going to assume that I'm below average in everything — works for me for now because it makes me stop and catch myself when I'm feeling confident and think, "Hmm, maybe I shouldn't be so sure. Maybe I shouldn't be so confident. In fact, I should probably be more careful when I'm driving because I think I'm probably a worse-than-average driver. Therefore, I need to be more careful."

SPENCER: I think I'm also a worse-than-average driver, for whatever that's worth. [laughs]

DEREK: I think that this works for me. Here, let's pick another example that I did blog about a few years ago and it actually was part of the inspiration for my choosing to turn this into a book. At my last company, I had 85 employees and I was the sole owner, and a lot was on my shoulders. And it didn't go well. I sold the company really out of personal failure. Even though financially it was successful, personally, I just felt like it was a disaster. And so I sold the company for a ton of money and people said, "Wow, congratulations," but to me it was a failure. But I found that I was resentful and blamed the employees for how badly things had gone, even though I'm not a resentful person usually. In this case, I was, "Agh! Those bastards, they did this and they did that. They were deliberately manipulating and that made me..." And for a year or two, I was in this thought loop of blaming them for everything, or blaming them for the failure of the company. And then one day, I had this thought of, "Wait a minute, what if it was all my fault?" That actually made me sit up in my chair, like, "Oh, wait a second, if everything was my fault, that's empowering now. That's something I can do something about." Whereas, believing that everything was their fault, that just feels victim-y; that feels helpless. Choosing to believe that everything was my fault, and choosing to see anything from that given perspective... Again, there's always more to the story; you can always choose any perspective on any story. If I look back through the whole past of the company, and assume that everything that happened was my fault, I created the situation that led them to act that way. I created the environment where that action was just the inevitable outcome for them to do — that was all my fault — that, to me, is an empowering mindset that then worked for me. That led me to try to be a better person. That gave me more tranquility and peace with the past. That led me to stop being angry at them. And so, like you, I blogged about it. I wrote a blog post saying, "I'm going to assume now that everything is my fault." But some people in the comments said, "How dare you? That's awful. It's terrible. I'm ridden with guilt all the time. And for you to suggest that I should think that everything is my fault, that's the worst thing I've ever heard you say. That's the most terrible advice you've ever given." Oh, well, then, it doesn't work for you. I wasn't saying everyone needs a helium balloon on their head. I'm saying I needed a helium balloon on my head. And if you find yourself lying face-down in the ground, maybe you need a helium balloon on your head, too. This works for me. If this doesn't work for you, then don't. I'm not saying it's for everybody. But yeah, that's choosing a belief because it works for me.

SPENCER: Well, where my mind goes when you say that is that, of course, it was partially your fault. And of course, it was partially their fault. And of course, it was partially luck as well that was nobody's fault. And so it's interesting to me because I think I would resist a framing like, "It was all your fault," or "It was all their fault," because it just seems so unlikely that either of those is true. And that doesn't mean that you're not right, that what works for you best is believing it's all your fault. What about just trying to see it as accurately as possible and actually figuring out which parts were your fault and which parts weren't your fault?

DEREK: I think two thoughts on that. One, I think that's the place to get to; I think believing that everything was my fault in this case, was the turnaround I needed to stop thinking everything was their fault. But then where I get to eventually is, yeah, it's probably a mix of that. But another thing even, fault is — now I don't know if we're picking on the example too much — but fault is the little ripples in the water. Where did that ripple come from? Where did that action come from? And even then choosing to judge someone's action as right or wrong, what are we judging this by, just financial outcome or not? So I think that I don't know if I ever could come to some final judgment about exactly what was my fault and what was not. I think it's all just a spin. It's all just a perspective.

SPENCER: Yeah, I guess what I think about in terms of ultimately arriving at is not so much, "Okay, it's 10% this person's fault and 20% that person's fault," but more, "Here's my best understanding causally of the events that have transpired and ways that the ideal version of myself would have behaved differently."

DEREK: Right. So then it is fair to judge things by whether it's useful to you or not. Is this something I can do something about? Is this information I can use to improve my actions in the future? I think about this filter a lot; believing that something is somebody else's fault might make you feel emotionally better in the moment, to think you aren't to blame. But that doesn't improve your actions. On the other hand, if you look at everything as your fault, you might look harder for ways that you can improve your actions. Sorry, I think we're going too deep down the fault rabbit hole, almost kind of what's the lost perspective on the subject, but do you know what I mean? We're judging analysis through the filter of what can I use in the future?

SPENCER: Yeah, and I think part of the reason we're so fixated on fault is because we want to know how to judge people and ourselves. We want to have a sense, am I a good person? Is that person a good person? We want to create these overall assessments. And then it seems like we have to get into the fault. But maybe there's a more enlightened view that just goes beyond that and says, "Well, this person is that sort of person. I am this sort of person," rather than creating a holistic judgment. I think about using an analogy of robots. To do another robot analogy [laughs], imagine that there was a robot that's programmed to punch people in the face. And it's going around the city, punching people in the face. And other people are getting really pissed off at this robot. And they're like, "I went over to the robot and he punched me in the face." My attitude in that situation, the ideal version of myself would say, "You know what, this is a robot designed to punch people in the face. Maybe it needs to be locked up or reprogrammed," or something like this. But there's something pathological about walking up to it, getting punched in the face, and then getting really angry once you realize it's a robot designed to punch people in the face. This is how I try to go into these situations. What sort of person is everyone in the situation? What sort of person am I?

DEREK: Well, this is such a wonderful, vivid, colorful example. I haven't yet seen how this ties back into what we were just talking about.

SPENCER: Well, because it removes the question of judgment. You're not going to be like, "Was the robot a good robot or a bad robot? Is the robot morally to blame or not?" It just gets to the details of, well, it's a robot that's programmed to punch people in the face. How do we want to act on that information? Do we want to hang out with the robot? Do we want to lock the robot up? Do we want to reprogram the robot?

DEREK: [laughs] I love that.

SPENCER: This is how I try to see myself — well, what sort of person am I? — rather than craft a holistic judgment about myself, like am I good or am I bad. I want to be like, "What sort of person am I?" And same with others; rather being like, "Are they good? Are they bad?" I want to be like, "Well, what are their tendencies? What are the sorts of behaviors they engage in?

DEREK: Right. That's a tough one for me to wrap my head around because I'm going to say, I — I don't know if it's I or we — have a tendency to think of ourselves as changeable but think of other people as not changeable. Again, I don't know if that's just me. But I think something I've read a few different times in these books on behavioral economics is, we often assume that other people are more motivated by money; whereas, we're motivated by intrinsic desires. And so too often bosses think, "Well, I'll just give my employees a little more money to do the job," and people that talk about motivation will say, "No, no, no, that's a bias. That's a mistake in thinking that other people are more driven by money; whereas, you're driven by higher motives." Everybody does that. In fact, everybody's driven by higher motives, and money is really often lower down the rank of needs. I think of myself as a very changeable person. I'm hesitant to think I'm a robot programmed for one function. I think that I contain multitudes; whereas, I do catch myself accidentally thinking that other people are just that way; they're just a robot designed for one function, and they're not going to change. Maybe that's a fault in my thinking.

SPENCER: Well, I certainly wouldn't say people are just programmed for one function. I didn't mean to imply that people are simple or anything like that. It's more just that people have tendencies and you can try to understand those tendencies without making a holistic judgment on, "Oh, that person is good," or, "That person's bad." Just try to really understand, what sort of person are they? What are the sorts of behaviors you would predict them to engage in in different situations? And then you can take that view on yourself. But on the changeability piece, I do think people are constantly trying to change each other. That is a really common thing people try to do, often unsuccessfully. When it comes to myself, I think of my behavior as within my control, at least for the next few seconds, with it quickly diminishing after that. Well, if I want to get myself to do something next Tuesday, I have to think about, well, what are the sort of things that get Spencer to do a thing, and then I have to say, "Oh, okay, well, Spencer will check his calendar in the morning," and so if I put something on the calendar, well, that might be a thing that is motivating to Spencer.

DEREK: Yes. Again, that's what works for you for now. That's not what everybody should do.

SPENCER: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's what worked for me.

DEREK: Maybe it's the Hollywood story arc. It doesn't even have to be Hollywood; I'm sure many novels do this, too. A writer told me that you can tell who is the true hero of the story, because the hero is the one that changes the most during the story. And I thought that was an interesting way of looking at it — he was a Hollywood screenwriter that said this — that if we think of ourselves as the protagonist in our story, does that mean that we are the one that goes through the changing arc, that we used to be this way, and now we're this way, or we've learned this important new insight, or we used to have this behavior that was working against us and we've learned the hard way, and now we're not going to make that mistake again? Point is, sometimes the difference between seeming like this kind of person versus that kind of person can just be a change in a little habit. I used to be a lazy person, but now I put it on my calendar, "Go to the gym at 10 am," and now suddenly, I'm going to the gym every day at 10 am. That was really the only thing that changed; I just needed to put that entry in my calendar. But to the outside world, it's like, "Wow, you've made a huge change. You used to be so lazy. Now you're like a total gym nerd." From our own internal point of view, we're still the same person, but just this one thing changed in our actions. I wonder about the robot that punches people in the face, that a single little change in the programming to get it to punch a punching bag or something like that [laughs] can change how it's seen in the world, from bad robot to good robot.

SPENCER: I think that's a great way to look at it. It makes me think about people with really extreme personalities, like someone who's extremely narcissistic or someone who's sociopathic, and thinking, well, maybe there is a small tweak that gets them to actually have... Maybe right now, this person is causing harm, but there's a small tweak in which they actually are doing good in the world. There's a fine line between the sociopath who's manipulating people and taking their money versus the sociopathic lawyer who is working within the legal system to do the best job possible defending the murderer, where they're actually providing a public service, because they're supposed to do the best job possible defending the murderer.

DEREK: Yeah. I saw more than twice in my years at CD Baby, somebody who came at us full of venom and attack, and contacted customer service, just like, "I'm going to destroy you people into the ground! You're the worst! Just you wait till you feel my wrath!" And luckily, my first employee ever was a really sweet guy named John. And John was so nice that he would get on the phone with these people. And John's nature is just, "Hey, man. Yeah, oh, I totally feel you, man." He'd sit on the phone with these people for a whole hour while doing other things in the background and let these people just vent their venom. And at the end of an hour — and I swear this happened more than two or three times — the person would turn around, "You know what, you guys are great. I'm so sorry. In fact, I'm gonna go tell everybody that you're the best." And sure enough — again, I can think of at least two times this happened, but I think it happened more — that person then became our biggest champion and went out into the world loudly like, "CD Baby is the best! You gotta sign up with these guys. Hey, every musician, if you're not on CD Baby, you have to be on CD Baby. These guys are the best thing in the whole world." They just had this tendency... They're like a fountain. They just need to spout and spout, spout, spout, spout, spout. And they can spout against you or they can spout for you. But it's just a slight tweak in their behavior that our biggest evangelists usually started out as our biggest critics. And that was just their personality, slight tweak.

SPENCER: Yeah, just redirecting that energy. [laughs] Before we wrap up, I was thinking, how would you feel about doing a quick rapid-fire round where I ask you incredibly difficult questions, and you have to give really short answers.

DEREK: [laughs] Sounds fun. Let's try it.

SPENCER: Alright, first question: why do you think low confidence works for you? Because I think the vast majority of self-help books emphasize that you should believe in yourself. But you're saying believing you're less good than other people seems to work for you.

DEREK: I'm coming from a place of high confidence, whether it's my nature or just something I learned early on. Quite often in life, I've smiled and thought, "Well, confidence is really all I have right now." I have a nature to be confident. So I think maybe to try to steer myself back to the middle, I deliberately adopt lack of confidence.

SPENCER: You mentioned that your previous business was a financial success, yet you viewed it as a failure. Why do you think you feel it was a failure despite the financial success?

DEREK: I define success as achieving what you set out to do, achieving what you wanted. And I mean that on a micro or macro scale. If I want to go mow my lawn and I want the blades of grass to be short, it is a success if I do that. I set out to help musicians and to create a place that was casual and cool and fun to work at, that ignored the formalities of most businesses. And I achieved that mostly, but then after the company grew past 50 employees, it took on its weird life of its own. It's like the gravity switched; the focus of the employees switched from outward to inward. And that's the thing that felt like a huge personal failure to me. Even though the company was making a lot of money, it turned into a nasty place, internally in the culture. So that felt like a huge failure. It used to be a fun place to work and it turned into a nasty place to work. And I also thought I was going to continue doing it for many decades, maybe the rest of my life. But when things got so bad, I thought, "Well, I could fire everybody and start again. I could go in there and try to fix everything. Or I could just walk away." And so I chose to just walk away, and that felt like I had given up. So, yeah, it felt like a failure personally.

SPENCER: Is there a story you have that you would want to believe even if it was completely false?

DEREK: Uh, yeah. [laughs] There's my short answer. Yes. All the time. Many. Constantly. Let's just pick one stupid little one off the top of my head, because somebody emailed me about it minutes before we hit record. They asked why I'm social in India, and I'm not social in New Zealand. I said, "I just find people in India to be more interesting than I do people in New Zealand." And I know that's not objectively true. That's my little story, that people in India are interesting and people in New Zealand aren't. I know that's false but it is my current story. I didn't deliberately choose that one. But if I wanted to counteract it, I would work hard to deliberately find supporting reasons to believe that people in New Zealand are fascinating.

SPENCER: Why don't you want to stop believing that story?

DEREK: I haven't felt the need to yet. Right now, there's a nice split in my life, where New Zealand is my place where I'm antisocial and I just work and I spend a lot of time with my boy. And when I'm not with my boy, I'm just working. The fact that I don't find people particularly interesting here works for me, because it helps me get more work done and focus on my boy full time. In fact, it's part of the reason I moved here in the first place. My boy was born in Singapore. I was living in Singapore; he was born in Singapore, and Singapore is a place where I find so many people so interesting, and so many people wanted my time. But I wanted to be a good dad. So I thought, "Why don't I move to a place on Earth with great nature, great place to raise a kid, but where I'm not interested in the people, and therefore I'll give all my social attention to my kid?" And that's why I chose to move to New Zealand for this reason.

SPENCER: My apologies to everyone living in New Zealand who's listening to the show. I hope you're not offended.

DEREK: [laughs] I'm wincing. I mean, I'm standing in New Zealand as I say this. I'm like, looking over my shoulder. I hope nobody heard me.

SPENCER: Well, now, they're definitely not gonna want to talk to you, so you're good.

DEREK: Exactly. Yeah, mission accomplished.

SPENCER: Why do you think it's important to say, "Hell, yeah," or say, "No"?

DEREK: That again is a specific tool for a specific situation. My little article I wrote on it starts with the first sentence saying, "If you are overwhelmed with opportunities, consider this trick: basically raise the bar, to say 'no' to almost all of them." But it's only for that situation where you're overwhelmed with opportunities. Unfortunately, it's a catchy catchphrase. And so I've heard from people around the world saying, "Oh, my God, I just got out of college, and I'm using 'hell, yeah' or 'no' for everything from now on." And I think no, no, no, that's the wrong time to use it. It's a tool for a specific situation. At your point in your career, you should be saying yes to everything. It's only later when lots of people are offering you lots of money and lots of situations and you can't say yes, that's when you gotta whip out 'Hell, yeah' or 'no' and use it in that situation, not all situations.

SPENCER: Okay, just two more questions for you. Do you think it's a good idea to strive to optimize everything we do?

DEREK: No. I used to. I used to try to optimize everything, but then I've found the joy of leaving some things in your life deliberately unoptimized, leaving them more random, allowing for surprises and serendipity and maybe just releasing the pressure on some things to not be optimized. Yeah, everybody has to choose for themselves. For some people, they would want to optimize the money-making side of their life and not optimize the personal relationships in their life. And for somebody else, it might be the opposite; they want to optimize personal relationships and never mind the money. That's not in their current value system. So no, I think you need to make a self-aware decision of what aspects of your life should be optimized instead of assuming that everything needs to be optimized because that's what the famous podcasters do.

SPENCER: Final question: what would you say to people who are told that they're weird?

DEREK: Ooh, say thank you. I taught that to my kid when he was (like) three years old. I said, anytime somebody says you're weird, say thank you; that's the best compliment. It means you're not like everyone else. You're not just normal; you're special. You have made your own decisions, come to your own conclusions instead of just echoing what everyone else is doing. So I think 'weird' is a high compliment. In fact, I think it's one of the best compliments you can receive.

SPENCER: Derek, thank you so much for coming out. This was really fun.

DEREK: Thanks, Spencer. It was such a wonderful conversation. I've loved that our brains work kind of differently and I admire the way you think. And so it was fun to hear your perspective pushing back on... Especially because I've been really lost in my thoughts of this book called Useful, Not True for a year now. Hey, anybody, if you're listening to this all the way to the end, please go to my website and send me an email and say hello, because if you're the kind of person that listens to Spencer's show, you're the kind of person I want to meet.

SPENCER: What's your website address?

DEREK: S-I-V-E-dot-R-S. My name with a dot in it. S-I-V-E-dot-R-S. And there's a contact link. I answer every single email. I actually really love hearing from people that listen to a podcast like this. In fact, it's the reason I choose which podcasts to appear on; they're the ones where I would like to meet the kind of people that listen to this show. So that's why I'm here.

SPENCER: Thanks so much, Derek.

DEREK: Thanks, Spencer.





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