José Maria Pimentel
One day I was talking with my brother, and he kept talking and talking about a podcast — 45 Graus by Zé Maria Pimentel. He was particularly impressed by Zé’s incredible agility to drift between entirely different subjects. Being a generalist by heart, my curiosity rush kicked in immediately.
I started to listen to one episode, and then another… and then I realized I had devoured three or four episodes in a row from a wide range of topics — from physics to comedy. Although I was all in, there was a missing link…
I’m always trying to emphasize the importance of designers in shaping a better world — but Zé hadn’t interviewed any designer at the time. So, I reached out to him to make my case. I got him interested in the topic, and he asked me to suggest a guest. After completing his “vetting process” he welcomed Daniel to the show, and that’s the story behind Daniel’s interview on 45 Graus.
After that, we started to lunch together from time to time and share podcast recommendations — the “addiction to podcasts” is another thing we have in common besides a generalist mindset.
Although I had access to Zé Maria’s preparation docs (what a rabbit hole…) for his podcast, it’s still a mystery to me how he can be debating evolutionary biology one day and psychedelic drugs on another.
Zé is also writing a book on politics, focused on one of the topics always at the front of my mind — the current world polarization. I’ve been waiting for a structured approach to this subject written by a fellow generalist for ages. The wait is almost over.
Zé’s podcast is in Portuguese (with a couple of exceptions), so most readers of REINVENTION.SPACE will not be able to listen to it. However, now, with this interview, they have a place to dive into his thought processes, as well as take a peek at how he prepares to discuss entirely different topics.
Bird’s Eye View
Can you give us a glimpse of your life story?
I was born in Coimbra, Portugal, in 1987, and I stayed there until I completed my bachelor’s degree in Economics, in 2008. I then moved to the Netherlands, for a year, to do my master’s degree in economics and finance.
Later on, I lived for another year in China, with my girlfriend (now wife), under a scholarship to study Chinese language and culture. We lived in Jinhua, a mid-sized city in the Zhejiang province that you have probably never heard about (or will in the future).
Since then, I have made a career in banking, together with some university lecturing, talks, and, as a very important side project in the last four years — podcasting (I will come back to this later on).
How was your experience of living in a country like China?
My time in China was, in practice, sort of a gap year. It was a unique opportunity to live for some time in a city with half a million inhabitants but virtually no foreigners — other than the few tens of students attending the local university. It was thus a great chance to observe and absorb a culture first-hand that is very different from our own.
One thing that struck me during our time there was how differently Chinese students approached learning. First, unlike many in the West, they take university VERY seriously: national examinations are the determinant for their professional future and so they spend most of their time at university actually… studying. Thus, although the university campus had (as you would expect in that part of China) a LOT of people, there was no partying going on (even on weekends).
In addition to taking study much more seriously than the typical western university-goer, the Chinese also approach the very act of studying in a different way. There is a strong emphasis on learning hard facts and much less so on creativity and individuality. An example of this is the fact that they study languages from a textbook which is a little different from a dictionary. This method equips them with a wide and solid vocabulary. The downside is that it also leads to weak grammar skills and so creates a serious difficulty in engaging in normal conversation…
Perhaps the most interesting dimension of our stay there was witnessing the country’s ongoing economic rise first-hand — and how this, in turn, was changing the local culture. One thing that immediately met my (our) eye(s) was how the newfound prosperity was leading to the emergence of a new class of affluent people, who were engaging in an extreme version of the typical ostentatious behavior we see from the monied class in any society. This applied to clothes (premium brands were brazenly displayed), as well as technology, cars, housing, and even…weddings, with flashy wedding planning stores popping up from every corner.
Can you share some thoughts on the polarization we’re witnessing in today’s world?
I am currently writing a book on politics that covers precisely (albeit not only; I will get to that below) the challenge posed by the recent rise in polarization.
Through this research, I learned that, in fact, what we call polarization is actually a complex and diverse phenomenon. First of all, it’s not happening in every country. Secondly, in countries where we do witness a growing polarization, it is, at least in part, related to another, much wider phenomenon — populism — which, in turn, seems to be caused by economic and social changes that have occurred in the last decades. Finally, in some countries, such as the US, part of the causes for this phenomenon are quite distant in time, going at least as far back as the changes in the party system brought by the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
In any case, one thing I believe we can safely say is that one important cause of the rise in polarization has been the rise of social media, by, among other effects, enabling users to circumvent the normal gatekeepers (e.g. newspapers).
Looking at the long-term, however, I am optimistic. First, I believe that, despite infamous cases, history shows that people are less stupid or primitive than one tends to fear. Second, the truth is these tensions mimic, to a large extent, what happened when another major change for societies occurred: the invention of the printing press.
Learning and Reinvention
What does learning mean for you? And how do you learn?
I am by nature, VERY curious. This means that I get direct pleasure from learning, and doing so about a wide range of topics. Thus, unless I am really tired, I am always eager to listen to a podcast or read a book, say, on science. It is as pleasurable to me as watching a TV show.
What drives my urge to learn new facts or ideas is, in a nutshell, trying to uncover the structure of the world, be it the natural world or the human world (in all its aspects: from the way people think and feel, to how we interact socially, to the practical world of the economy and work life. Hence I am naturally attracted to new facts or ideas on pretty much every topic, regardless of where they come from: from a book, a podcast or a youtube video (or even, for that matter, a reality tv show), but also from a life experience or an enlightening conversation with someone.
In my podcast (to which I’ll get to later), I try precisely to blend these dimensions: the passive one (reading or listening) and the active one (taking part in a conversation).
How do you see yourself in the spectrum of generalization/specialization?
I see myself, clearly, as a generalist. Given that, as I mentioned above, what motivates me is trying to uncover the underlying nature of all reality. I am always instinctively looking for what links different topics, diverse strands of the broad reality, rather than going down the intricacies of each subject. And, although there is a lot of value in exploring topics in detail — indeed, it often changes ideas one had constructed from a more superficial analysis — I find that the deeper one goes in any subject the more one finds himself dealing with stuff that arises not directly from the nature of reality but from “human-made”, unnecessary complexity (say, the specific version of a specific law that refers to a small issue that… you get my point!).
How do you cross-pollinate knowledge from one field to the other?
This happens naturally. My curiosity about a wide range of topics leads me to learn about them and the mind naturally does the rest — when I am exploring a new topic, whatever bridge there is with other topics just pops up naturally.
45 Graus and Podcasting
What’s your drive to host a podcast?
Strangely enough, it’s not easy to pinpoint what was my main motivation in starting a podcast. One factor is my natural curiosity about many subjects. Another is the fact that I have always, since my childhood, enjoyed feeding that curiosity through talking to people, more than through other, more passive means (such as reading). Finally, the world is full of interesting, knowledgeable people and hosting my own podcast is perhaps the best excuse I could find to have a non-awkward excuse to start a conversation with them.
What are your criteria when choosing guests?
It varies. Usually, the guest comes before the topic: I come across someone who I feel will make an interesting guest (in a newspaper article or another podcast, or he/she is recommended to me, usually by a listener). Other times, the choice of the topic precedes the guest. There’s a topic I really want to learn more about and discuss and I go looking for someone that knows about it. In both cases, what I look for in a guest is someone who is knowledgeable, a good communicator, and doesn’t mind engaging in a peer-to-peer discussion.
How do you prepare for the interviews?
As soon as the interview date is set, I create an empty working document that will be the guiding notes for that conversation. From that moment, a lot of ideas typically come up naturally and I start adding them there (without much concern for order): topics to explore, questions, as well as my own observations on the topic. I will add these to the document whenever they come to mind (sometimes, they pop up at random during the day and I write them down on my mobile phone to add later to the document).
Also, and most importantly, if the conversation is not based on a book authored by the guest (in which case the reading of the book will be enough to generate a profusion of questions and observations on its subject), I also go looking for information that may help me prepare the interview, both to reinforce my knowledge of the topic and to generate questions and observations on the topic that will feed the interview. This may involve reading books or articles or listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos.
One thing I have found is that the more conversations I have the faster and deeper this process goes, as the connections between different topics I mentioned above multiply.
At the end of this process, my notes for each interview tend to run several pages long. Needless to say, most times there’s no time to go through it all during the conversation. But that’s part of the game. Half the value these interviews bring me is in the preparation.
Has your system of beliefs changed significantly since you started the podcast?
Not in the sense of drastically altering its foundations, but it has definitely become much more nuanced and, probably, embedded with contradictions.
This is a clear benefit — albeit not necessarily a pleasant one to go through — of hosting a podcast with a very diverse set of guests. When you talk with people of different, often contrasting views, you are forced to take these different opinions seriously. This process forces you, first, to see the partial truths that exist often in these opposite views and, most importantly, to face the fact that reality is so complex that it’s very hard to come up with a definite answer.
Past and Future
Can you share some of the major lessons you’ve learned in life?
Good things are hard. The main reason is that in order to achieve what we want we often have to forgo present pleasure and make an unpleasant effort for the benefit of future gain. This also applies to more short-term effects: we will feel good in the evening if we feel the day was productive. One trick I’ve come up with to facilitate this process is what I call “screwing my future self”. By committing upfront to do things (like this very interview or a conversation for my podcast) that I know are beneficial in the long run but I will probably feel the temptation to procrastinate, I give myself little chance to do that.
Another lesson is the value of carving our own path by doing something unique. That means it can’t be copied.
Another lesson I do not always follow myself is being less risk-averse. We tend to be risk-averse for emotional reasons, of course, but also for cognitive ones: the potential downsides of any endeavor usually come to mind more easily — they merely require us to imagine all the good things we have in the present situation vanishing — , while the upside of the change, which is probably much vaster is, because it is by definition unknown, much more difficult to imagine.
Finally, another important lesson I’ve learned very recently is not to overstretch oneself and put one’s health at risk. While most of the time it is our lack of drive — not of energy — that prevents us from achieving what we ultimately want, sometimes the reverse can happen. When we are doing something we’re really motivated about, we must be careful not to exhaust ourselves halfway through the marathon.
Which big questions do you have on your mind currently?
As I mentioned above, I am currently writing a book on politics. Besides the issues of increasing polarization and the rise of populism in the last decade, the first part of the book tries to answer a simple but tricky question: why do we find that different people, even those with good intentions and equally intelligent, have different — sometimes opposite — political views? This is a topic I find fascinating, for it shows that, despite our efforts to present ourselves as rational, logical beings, the truth is that we are driven mainly by our emotions and our intuitions.
How do you face the future? Do you make plans for it?
I am a father to two young daughters, of 1 and 2.5 years old. So, despite all the wisdom I’ve tried to expound until now, the truth is that I am now living mostly day to day :)