Tim Urban is an Expert on not Being an Expert
A series of interesting conversations with interesting people.
For a self-proclaimed procrastinator (his recent TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 8 million times!), Tim Urban sure seems to get a lot done. He has quickly become one of the most popular writers on the internet with his blog, Wait But Why, where he posts weekly about anything from how to be insufferable on Facebook to artificial intelligence, all coupled with his signature stick figure illustrations that would make your kindergarten teacher proud.
Your stories from WaitButWhy have been shared more on Pocket than any other author on the Internet. It’s clear they have struck a chord with your readers. What do you think drives it? What type of impact do you hope you are having with your work?
When I write, I imagine the reader as myself, right before I started thinking about or researching the topic at hand. This makes it easy to figure out what topics to pick and how much depth to get into and what kind of sense of humor to use. There aren’t really that many categories of people out there, so even if only 1 in 500 people happens to have my exact taste, with the insane reach of the internet, that turns into a lot of people. The people who resonate well with the blog are probably a lot like me. I think it also helps that I spend at least a week, and sometimes more than a month, on each article. That’s pretty different than a typical writer’s schedule.
Personally, I’ll say that your article, the Tail End, about our limited time on this Earth, changed my behavior and choices that I was making. I’m sure I’m not the only one. What’s the best feedback that you’ve gotten from someone whether via an email or in person?
A mother emailed me and told me that the mammoth post turned around her teenage son’s depression. That delighted me.
Your article on the mind-blowing Fermi Paradox was published 2 years ago but still remains one of the most popular articles in Pocket, with over 80,000 saves. After all of that research, and 2 years more to mull it over, do you have a leading guess on which hypothesis is right?
This is one of those topics where I’ve lost all self confidence about my own opinion — because I’ve talked to multiple people smarter than I am who make convincing arguments about why we’re almost definitely the only intelligent life in the universe, and multiple other people, also smarter than I am, who speak with conviction about how the universe is almost definitely brimming with intelligent life. So now I have no conviction about anything, since I’m not an expert — I draw my knowledge from what experts say. When this kind of disagreement happens, it’s a telltale sign that this is just one of those topics we don’t as a species yet understand. Future people will look back at us with this topic the way we look back at the people who were debating whether the stars were pinholes in the dome of the underside of heaven or something else. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s a lot of other intelligent life out there, because how insane is it if this only happened here.
Since writing your posts on the AI Revolution and Super Intelligence (which Elon Musk, who is famously scared of AI’s future, shared as a good primer on the subject), efforts have ramped up dramatically. What’s been the most interesting announcement since then?
It seems like every week something new and important happens in the world of AI. The creation of Open AI by Elon Musk and Sam Altman — which will allow more collaborative and transparent efforts to develop hopefully safe AI — seems like a very important piece of the puzzle. But like the Fermi Paradox situation, our species currently has no idea what the hell is gonna happen with AI, so I’ve heard a vast range of strong opinions about whether Open AI is a good thing or a bad thing.
What have you been finding interesting / what have you been saving recently?
Like everyone, I’ve been glued to election stuff because it’s so fun and trashy and terrifying. My favorite place for that is FiveThirtyEight — which I like for all kinds of stuff, not just election-related. I spend a few hours of every week glued to whatever the latest recommendations are on kottke.org. And have been loving Sam Harris’s blog (https://www.samharris.org/blog) recently.
What are your go-to places — sites, apps, people, etc — for finding new stories to read and watch in Pocket?
I already mentioned kottke.org, but that guy has great taste and when he recommends and article, I’ll usually read it. I find myself actually using the iOS News app daily. I usually just open it up in the morning in bed and then read shit for 45 minutes until my self-hatred hits the point in the meter that makes me get up. Most of the other articles I read usually come to me in the form of an email from a friend through the Pocket app.
Procrastination. As a person who has given a TED talk and written several articles on the topic, I imagine that Pocket and the concept of save-for-later is by now a part of your routine. Do you have a Pocket ritual? If so, what is it?
I constantly save things to Pocket. I used to just leave recommended articles in my inbox or email them to myself. That was a terrible system. Then I started saving each one in a new tab. That was a terrible system. Now I can get them out of my life by saving them to Pocket, usually using the Chrome extension. The danger there is I forget about them and just never read them — but I find that there is usually a time every few weeks, maybe on a plane or sitting in a waiting room or something else, when I open Pocket and pound through a bunch of articles at once. Pocket is definitely my consumption to-do list now.
If you had the chance to escape and read all of your current Pocket saves where would you go to do it?
Jail. My dream is to commit some crime that puts me in solitary confinement for one year with nothing besides a tablet with a good internet connection and where I’m not allowed to do any work or communicate with anyone. I’d read 5,000 articles and 500 books and watch 500 movies and documentaries and TV shows. But I so far haven’t found any crime where that’s the exact sentence so it’s hard. Second choice would be to be a truck driver and consume everything in the world by audio.
If people follow you on Pocket, what other types of things should they expect you to share about?
They should expect a highly irregular schedule, because I’ll go weeks and forget that recommending things on Pocket is a thing I can do, and then I’ll remember and suddenly recommend five things before forgetting again. As for specific type of recommendation, it can be anything — whatever I read that I would immediately send to a bunch of friends is a good thing to recommend on Pocket.
Who would you want to see us interview next?
How would you describe Pocket to someone who’s never heard of it?
A perfect place to put every article or video you come across or that people send you. It becomes your consumption to-do list, all in one place, waiting for you whenever you’re ready, even when you’re offline.
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