The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
David Brooks is a political and cultural commentator who has written an Opinion column for the New York Times for two decades. His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and more. He is also the author of several books, including “The Social Animal,” “The Road to Character,” and “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.” David’s newest book, “How to Know a Person” is a practical guide to fostering deeper connections at home, work, and throughout our lives. David joins the podcast to discuss the social and relational crisis in our society, why it’s better to be an illuminator than a diminisher, and his practical advice on how we can become better people.
Tom: All right. Well, I’d like to welcome David Brooks on our interview today. David. Great to have you here.
David: Good to be with you.
Tom: Let me start out with some personal questions. I took some notes while reading your book and you have many questions of your own that you ask people.
Um, and I want to steal a few of those from your, from your inventory. So tell me about what did you want to be when you were a kid?
David: Well, of course I wanted to be center fielder for the New York Mets, uh, first. And then in second grade, I massively wanted to be an astronomer, uh, before I realized that that requires math.
But around that time, and when I was about seven or eight. I read a book called Paddington the Bear, and decided at that instant I wanted to become a writer. And so it’s been many decades since, and I’ve probably written every single day except maybe 200 in all that time. I’m a seven day a week writer. I write on vacations.
When my wife and I got married, she had the illusion that she was going to get to enjoy all these leisurely breakfasts with me. But I really don’t talk to another human being until I’ve written a thousand words. So, uh, we have leisurely dinners, but no breakfasts.
Tom: Well, speaking of, of writing, in your columns, in your books over the years, you’ve wrestled a lot with questions of morality, of values.
Tom: And I was wondering, outside of your family, who has shaped your values?
David: Well, in a personal sense, it would be my grandfather. I mean, he was an immigrant kid and he gave me that sense that we’re sort of outsiders in this society and we’re going to try to climb our way into, into it and, and the love of America and a more, um, philosophical sense.
You know, I, I say my political heroes, uh, one of them is Edmund Burke, great conservative thinker whose core idea to me was epistemological modesty. We should be careful about what we can, think we can know because the world is so complicated and when we pursue change, it should be incremental but constant.
And that was one, and then another was Alexander Hamilton, and he was, of course, a Puerto Rican hip hop star from the Heights. Uh, and, no, he,was, he just wanted to create a society in which poor boys and girls like him could rise and succeed. And so that’s another. But I would say, if you want to know the core thing, you know, if we go back to the wars of religion in the 17th century, Europeans were just savagely killing each other over religion.
Yeah. And there were two reactions against that. And the first was the French Enlightenment, which said we’ve got to get rid of religion and trust reason. Yeah, and then there was the Scottish Enlightenment that says well, we can’t really trust reason our powers of reason are weak and David Hume, one of the great heroes of that Enlightenment, said reason is and ought to be the slave to the passions and Adam Smith follows in that tradition and I think to some degree Edmund Burke follows in that tradition.
And so the Scottish Enlightenment is really the core of a lot of my values.
Tom: I wanna turn now, uh, directly to your, to your new book, “How to Know a Person.” You note in there, “The thing we need most in life are healthy relationships. The thing we struggle with in life the most are relationships.” This is just a, an incredible paradox.
And, and in your reflecting on it, how do you, how do you make sense of this need and poor performance in that struggle there?
David: Yeah. I mean, we’re in the middle of some sort of social and relational crisis in the country, and so rising suicide rates, rising depression rates, 54% of Americans say that no one knows them well, the number of people who say they have no close personal friends has quadrupled.
Uh, the number of people who rate themselves in the lowest happiness category has gone up by 50%, and so it’s just like. We’re just not good at relationships. And you can tell a lot of stories about why that is, and social media would certainly be a prime culprit here. But to me, building a friendship, you can talk about relationship, or connection, or community.
But these words are abstract. The real skill of building a relationship, it involves a skill, a set of social skills. How to listen well. How to disagree without breaking a relationship. How to create a dinner party so everyone feels included. How to ask for and offer of forgiveness. These are skills, the way learning carpentry is a skill, the way learning tennis is a skill.
And, in my view, we don’t teach these skills enough. And a lot of people are not developing them. And so, this book is really an attempt to say, “What are these skills? And how can we get really good at them?” And I’m teaching myself as much as I’m teaching anybody, because anybody who knows me knows I’m not the most socially adept human being on the face of the earth.
So I went around and I talked to conversation experts. I talked to actors who are phenomenal at observing other people’s behavior and then trying to get inside the mind of another person. And so really the book is meant to be a practical set of descriptions of the basic skills of building a friendship, of building a relationship, of seeing others, understanding others, and making them feel seen, heard, and understood.
Tom: Do you have a set list, like bullet points for someone who thinks to themselves, I want to make sure that I am prioritizing building good relationships — what maybe, I don’t know, three or four things should I keep in mind that I’m following and keeping maybe at the forefront of my consciousness?
David: Well, I walk people through the stages of how you get to really know someone.
And the first stage is just when you first meet someone. And when we meet each other, we’re unconsciously asking each other the following questions. Am I a person to you? Am I a priority to you? And the answer to those questions will be, will be answered by your gaze, by your eyes, before any words come out of your mouth.
So, paying attention just on first meeting, or in any meeting, the quality of attention you bring to that encounter, will determine how good the encounter is. And the story I tell… is, uh, I was down in Waco, Texas, and I was having breakfast with a 93 year old woman named LaRue Dorsey. And Mrs. Dorsey was a strict, stern disciplinarian.
She’d been a teacher most of her career. And she said, I love my students enough to discipline them. And I found her quite intimidating. And into the diner walks a guy named Jimmy Durrell. And he’s friends with both of us. He walks over to Mrs. Dorsey, grabs her by the shoulders. And shakes her way harder than you should shake a 93 year old.
And he says to her, Mrs. Dorsey, Mrs. Dorsey, you’re the best, you’re the best, I love you, I love you. And this stern drill sergeant that I’d been encountering turns into a bright, eye shining 9 year old girl. And it was a sign that the quality of attention you bring is a moral act. It brings things into being.
And the important point I’d make is that Jimmy is more garrulous than I am, but he’s also a pastor. He pastors to the homeless. And when he sees someone, he sees someone made in the image of God. He sees someone with an infinite soul, a soul of infinite value and dignity. He’s trying to look at them the way Jesus would look at them.
And he’s seeing someone so important that Jesus was willing to die for that person. Now you can be an atheist or an agnostic or Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. But if you want to see someone else you have to treat them with that level of respect and reverence, it’s an absolute precondition. So just the very act of casting the right kind of attention is the gateway to all that will follow. But then the main thing about been getting to know someone is not trying to imagine what they’re thinking but asking them about what they’re thinking and getting phenomenally good at asking questions and being a conversationalist. And I’ve learned now I go to a party and I’ll walk out and I’ll think you know that whole time nobody asked me a question uh, and I’ve come to conclude that only about 30 percent of people are question askers.
The rest are very nice people. They just don’t ask questions. And so, you know, the next skill I walk people through the book is, is just how you, how you ask good questions, what are good questions, and how you have good conversations.
Tom: In your book, you talk a lot about illuminators. Could you explain what that, what you mean by that term and why it’s so important?
David: Yeah. So my theory is that in any… group of people, there are going to be some diminishers and some illuminators. And diminishers are people who are not curious about others. They stereotype, they label, they’re too into themselves, they just don’t, other people are just not on their radar screen. But illuminators have a persistent curiosity about other people.
They make people feel lit up and, um, respected and understood. They make you feel great. And so there’s a story, which is probably apocryphal, about Jennie Jerome, who was, went on to become Winston Churchill’s mom. When she was a young woman, she was seated at a dinner table next to the British Prime Minister, late 19th century, uh, William Gladstone.
And she left that dinner thinking that he was the cleverest person in England. And then a couple weeks later, she seated next to Gladstone’s great rival, Benjamin Disraeli, and she left that dinner thinking that she was the most clever person in England. So it’s nice to be Gladstone. It’s better to be Disraeli.
To make other people feel clever. The other thing I read about, which was another Illuminator, it was, it happened in Bell Labs, the legendary research facility. And the people there noticed that some of the researchers were just a lot more innovative and were getting more patents than the others. And they wanted to figure out why.
And they looked into their education background, their IQ, and they couldn’t find anything that correlated with innovation and success as a researcher. Then they noticed the most successful researchers were in the habit of having breakfast or lunch with an electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. And Nyquist would get inside their head, would ask the right questions, and he would really beam his attention upon them and help them think through their own minds, and help them solve their problems.
And so, to me, Harry Nyquist was an illuminator. And I go around and I look at people on the train or in any company, in any church, synagogue, mosque, some people are just illuminators and they just make everybody feel phenomenal because they, they really understand the people around them.
Tom: Is that a skill that people are most just born with or have you noticed that there are some adaptive sort of lessons that one can learn and kind of build it in if one doesn’t naturally feel like that’s their intuitive way of interacting with others?
David: Yeah, my view is it’s like athletic ability. Some people are born with more and less, but everybody gets better with practice. And nobody grows up knowing how to play baseball or basketball. You got to be taught. That’s right. And so, you know, for example, some of the skills in conversation that I’m communicating in the book, I got it from conversation experts.
There are things like, don’t be a topper. If you tell me about you’re having trouble with your teenage son, and I say, oh, yeah, I get what you mean. I’m having trouble with mine. It means, it’s superficially, it seems like I’m just trying to relate to you. But really what I’m trying to do is yank the conversation onto my problems and away from your problems.
Yep. And so you don’t want to do that. Another skill I learned is, uh, keep the gem statement in the center. When we’re having a disagreement, there’s probably something deep down we agree upon. My brother and I might be fighting about our dad’s health care, but we both want what’s best for our dad. And that’s the gem statement.
If you can keep that in the center, you’ll amid conflict. Another one is be a loud listener. You should be listening so actively, you’re burning calories. And I have a friend named Andy Crouch, who is a writer, and when you talk to him, he’s like one of those congregations in a Pentecostal church. He’s like, uh huh, yeah, uh huh, yeah, yeah, yeah, amen, preach.
I just love talking to that guy. And so you want to be a loud listener. And so these are discreet and very practical skills, the kind of thing I talk about in the book. And believe me, I was not born with these skills, but I’ve tried to practice them since I learned them while doing the research.
Tom: Social media, of course, is pervasive in our life. Is it possible through social media to build at least partially some substantive, genuine relationships with others?
David: Maybe some, but I think, um, in general, social media is more harmful than hurtful. In part because on social media there’s judgment everywhere and understanding nowhere. It’s just a climate where you can’t trust other people in social media because somebody else will leap down your throat.
And so in a climate of distrust, everyone is guarded. And the people who are most spiritually unhealthy dominate, because they’re willing to do the cruel things. And then even unless… Hostile areas like online dating or, or whatever, I just think we’re, we’re mammals, you know, a lot of what we, the way we read each other is unconscious.
A lot of it is sense of smell, things like that. When you lose your sense of smell, you suffer a greater emotional deterioration than you, if you lose your hearing or your vision, because we’re consciously, we’re unconsciously sort of sensing each other and we’re embodied creatures and you take the body out of that encounter you’re taking a lot out in ways that we’re not really aware of.
I think social media and frankly coming AI will further deteriorate our skills of getting to know each other. The one caveat I would have is FaceTime. I remember I was talking to a friend of mine, which is strangely intimate, I was talking to a friend of mine who had started going out with some guy and they were, it was a long-distance relationship.
And I asked her, um, “Have you FaceTimed yet?” And she was like, “Oh, no, we’re not ready for that yet.” FaceTime. Um, so that FaceTime may be a more intimate, the most intimate form of online communication you can do.
Tom: Well, we discussed at the top of the conversation that from a very early age, you knew you wanted to be a writer and writing is what you do, but writing about relationships is a specific thing. Were there certain moments in your life or just a development of yourself as a writer where you wanted to then kind of focus on that topic very specifically?
David: Yeah, I think, you know, I, I tried to turn myself into a deeper and better human being. And so I would say through a lot of my career, well, there’s a, let me step back.
There’s a psychologist named Jerome Bruner. Who said there are two modes of communication, which he called paradigmatic mode and narrative mode. And a lot of us spend our professional lives in paradigmatic mode. That’s making an argument, making a PowerPoint presentation, uh, making a marketing proposal, or, you know, writing a newspaper column in my case.
And it’s about argument, about structure, about logic, and marshalling evidence. And that’s a great way to make a case for something. But if you’re going to know another human being, you need to be in narrative mode. You need to be storytelling. You need to be listening to their stories. And so in the last, as I’ve gotten older, and hopefully a little softer and wiser, I’ve tried to live my life in narrative mode.
And so even in political journalism, I no longer ask people, What do you think about this? I ask people, How did you come to think this about this?
And so that gets them to tell me a story about somebody who shaped their values. And I always want people to be in narrative mode. And when they’re telling me their story, if I really want to understand them, I want to ask a few questions. Some of them, what’s the voice here? What’s the tone of voice this person uses?
Are they cynical? Sassy? You can tell a lot about people’s self image and how effective they are in the world by their tone of voice. Are they insecure? Are they confident? Then, what’s the plot here? We all tell our life story, and we all choose the plots that are common in our culture. So, some people tell their life story as a rags to riches story.
I was down, I, I moved forward. Some people tell it as an overcoming the monster story. I faced this challenge of abusive parent, or alcoholism, or something, and I overcame it. A lot of people tell their story as redemption stories. I was… Going uphill, I had a setback, but I came back better. And Americans tend to tell the redemption story, so I want to hear what’s the story you’re telling me.
And you can tell a lot about a person by what plot they choose, how their tone of voice is, and what role they play, what role that hero is. And so, for example, I read Viola Davis, the actress’s memoir, recently. She’s a fighter. Like, she said, I’m a fighter. Some people are, I’m the reconciler, or some people are, I’m the healer.
There’s always a role, a social role, that people assign themselves. And for me, it’s probably like, I’m the teacher, I like to be a teacher. And I don’t work in a classroom, I work in a newspaper, in a magazine, or in books. But I love to take wise things that I’ve heard, and I like to share them around.
That’s the most rewarding thing I do. And so, that’s my role. And so, I’m trying to… I have conversations where we’re telling each other stories, and then I’m trying to listen carefully for those things.
Tom: Reflecting on that does make me think why social media struggles so much, because what leads with social media, like the position and the argument, and there’s no space in a comment for the story, right?
And so if, if knowing the history of the position is what’s most revealing, you just can’t get that in the sort of short form comment. And so then you, it will then often preclude that possibility of knowing someone or understanding someone if you’re only looking at that slice in time in which one has a position, but not the kind of temporal sequence of how you got to it.
David: So everyone’s on a journey. Everyone’s involved in some noble struggle. And if you can’t get them to be historians of themselves, you really can’t understand them. And it is a problem generally with society that we’re paradigmatic rich, and narrative poor. And so, like, if you look at the Sunday talk shows, which I’ve done, God knows, they have these newsmaker senators or whatever come up on the show.
And the host kind of asks them, try to gotcha questions. And the guests give these canned answers. But if instead of that, they just say, Who are you? Why are you here? Like, what, tell us why you love to do public service, like, where did it all come from? Who influenced you? Tell me about yourself. It would just be a better show, frankly. It would get higher ratings, and it would be better for our politics. But instead we do this artificial canned… argumentative dance after
Tom: After the break, David dives into moral philosophy. He gives practical advice on how we can become better people. And he reveals his favorite Taylor Swift song.
Tom: I’m going to turn our conversation to ethics. In your book, you wrote about the philosopher Iris Murdoch. I spent a lot of my life studying ethics, moral philosophy, but somehow I’d not come across her before. So could you tell our listeners who Iris Murdoch is and how she understood the basis of morality?
David: Yeah, she was, um, a novelist and also a philosopher and she was tops in both fields. And her book, which I, I quote the most in the book is called the Sovereignty of Good.
David: And she’s in distinction, I believe, to a lot of the male moral philosophers of the world who try to build these vast moral systems like Immanuel Kant. And they’re philosophically rigorous and they’re impregnable logically, but they miss some of the nitty gritty of daily life. And I think a lot of the male moral philosophers were, were blind to the systems of care right around them that in those days women were primarily doing, and so Murdoch is very sensitive to that, and so she argues that morality is not something that happens only in the big epical moments of life, but being moral is being considered in the daily complexities of different situations, and she says most of the time we look at people with egotistical and self serving eyes.
We look at people as a way to, what can we get out of this person? And she says our goal is to try to cast what she calls a just and loving attention on others. And she says we grow by looking. And so she emphasizes, and she learned this from a, from a mystic in the World War II, Simone Weil. That the act of looking at something is itself the essential moral act.
Attention is the essential moral act. And to Murdoch, that is the central thing we have to do. We have to learn to see each other generously. And there’s something about seeing another that is a generous act. If you see potential in me, I’ll see potential in myself. If you cast a loving, just and loving attention on me, I’ll blossom.
And so Murdoch really focuses on the everyday moral actions of just meeting somebody in a store. Like, all these are little moral moments, and you can either cast a just and loving attention upon them, or you can cast a cold and unfeeling attention. And these little moments add up to something big. And I also quote in the book Parker Palmer, who says, every epistemology implies an ethic.
That your way of knowing in the world is your way of being in the world. And if you know people in a cold and unfeeling way, you will be a cold and unfeeling person. But if you know in a respectful and vulnerable and generous way, you will be that kind of person. So every epistemology implies an ethic.
Tom: I want to give you a chance to offer just a bit of practical advice.
Say I wake up tomorrow or one of our listeners and says, “Starting right now, I’m going to make a commitment to becoming a better person.” What’s the first thing that I can do on that long, long pathway?
David: Yeah, well, I, I would go back to the, Nick Epley is a scholar of the University of Chicago, and so he understands, as all psychologists do, that the thing that makes us happiest and best is like, socially encountering another human being.
And he was one day on his commute, a commuter train up to Chicago from where he lived, and he noticed, well, people are happiest when they’re talking to each other. I’m on a commuter train, no one’s talking to each other. They’re all on their screens with headphones on. And so he paid the people in commuter train over the next weeks to talk to each other on the ride.
And then he interviewed them all after the ride. And they were all happier. The introverts were way happier. Extroverts are way happier. People are just way happier when they talk to each other on a plane or a train or a bus or wherever. And so the first thing I would say to do is next time you’re adjoining another person, start a conversation.
We underestimate how much we’ll enjoy the conversation. We underestimate how deep people want to go, uh, and how fun it’ll be. And so I’ve started, not all the time, but when I’m on a plane or a train or whatever it is, I don’t put my headphones in. I’m, I start a conversation with the person next to me. And I’ve had a million experiences that I remember way better than I would remember whatever it was I would have read or watched on the screen during that flight or whatever it was.
David: And so the first thing I would say is start conversations.
Tom: I can imagine many of us have a sense of like, it would be a good idea, but the idea of talking to a stranger seems terrifying and even like, what would I say or ask him that doesn’t sound like trite or fake or superficial? Do you have a recommendation of like, a couple of questions someone could like, essentially, almost even like on a note card, keep in their back pocket of like, I just need to get over the hump and get started?
David: Yeah, well, first of all, I asked a lot of people who are in the sort of question asking business, whether they’re journalists or researchers, how many times does someone tell you “none of your damn business, like stop invading my space.” And the answer is never. People want to talk. People want to tell their story.
Because in many cases, no one has ever asked them their story. Say you’re on a plane. You want to start out by having a conversation of the shared experience you’re having in common. Like, why is this plane late? You know, you want to start with something you have in common. But my go to, I travel a lot. So I know a lot of places in America.
And so I say, where’d you grow up? I’m not shy about asking about childhood. People love to talk about their childhood. And so that, that tends to be my first question. Where’d you grow up? Or after you meet somebody, if at a cocktail party or something, they introduce themselves, where’d you get your name?
And then they start describing some of the, you know, their parents, what their parents are thinking, what their ethnic heritage is, where their name comes from. And then start asking about vacations and things like that, things they love. You want to ask… people about things they’re proud of. So if somebody’s got wearing a t-shirt for their kid’s sports team, ask about that.
And then as you get to know someone a little better, you really can go deeper with big questions much sooner. And so I once had a fantastic conversation with a group of people, and the question I asked was, tell me about… Your favorite unimportant thing about yourself, and I learned that this scholar I really respect really loves trashy reality TV shows, and he wanted to talk about that and he asked me and I talked about my weird Taylor Swift fixation and but then if you if you really get to know someone my favorite kind of questions are the ones that lift them Above the daily rut of experience up to 30, 000 feet.
And so there’s questions like, well, what crossroads are you at? Most of us are at a crossroads at one point or another, and this question allows us to like reflect, yeah, I’m at this, I’m at this crossroads right now. Or, uh, what would you do if you weren’t afraid? Most of us, the fear plays a role in our lives.
And many of us inhibit ourselves from leaving a job, or joining a job, or starting a company because we’re a little afraid. How does fear show up in your life? Or, if this five years in your life is a chapter, what’s the chapter about? And these are stories that are generous because they get people to reflect on themselves maybe in a way they have never reflected on themselves.
And you find yourself having an exploration. And then the, the thing I’ve learned is if somebody comes to you with a critique, or a disagreement, try to ask them three times about their point of view. When you’re disagreeing, when somebody’s critiquing you, your first job is to stand in their standpoint.
As to ask, what am I missing here? Tell me more, tell me more. And if you ask them three times in three different ways, you’ll learn things on the third answer that you didn’t get on the first. Uh, and so your job is not to be defensive and argue back. It’s for the first point to stand in their standpoint.
Tom: I’m thinking about the different kinds of relationships we cultivate. Friendships, romantic relationships, professional relationships, I think sometimes we get hung up on, you know, in terms of asking good questions. I think you’ve given some really good ones. I think sometimes we worry about where we might be crossing boundaries and where certain kinds of questions are inappropriate in different circumstances.
Do you have any guidance around where are some lines that shouldn’t cross if I’m talking to someone in a professional way, or someone who’s, I’m not sure, do I put them in the friendship category, romantic category? How do we handle those, uh, those boundaries?
David: Right. Well, I think, you know, I think first… You’ve, you’ve got to be patient enough to let the relationship develop slowly. I have a couple friends, and they say, we love friends who are lingerable. And after a dinner party, they just linger. And it’s letting the relationship develop slowly. And in the book, I have a great quote from D. H. Lawrence. You want to approach another person the way you would approach a deer in the forest.
Just slowly, without willfulness, just letting it happen very slowly. And you have to read that. But I find in general that people are too timid and not too invasive. And if you’re gonna air, uh, you should air on the part of, like, trying to get to know someone. And my view, my, I tell boomer executives, like, they always, they ask me, like, how do I deal with my young employees?
And… I tell them, if your relationships with your young employees is not making you uncomfortable because it’s too personal, then you’re not doing it right. That you should, you know, you should be personal. People, especially younger employees, very correctly, as the cliche goes, want to bring their whole self to work.
And they want that sense of connection and not that sense that you’re a cold, distant, aloof executive. And I find we err too much on the side of just being cold and efficient because it seems easier. Now having said that, obviously a friendship is different than a work relationship, and a work relationship is different than a romantic relationship.
I think my view in society is that work and personal friendships, that’s merging. It’s not as clearly defined as when work was, you know, going off to the coal mines. Now, most, many of us, not all of us, but many of us are in the communication and care businesses. Whether it’s a nurse or a teacher. And people want to see a hint.
And I’ll tell one story, so I’ve, I’ve been teaching college kids for decades now. And once, about 10 years ago, we were in the middle of the term. And I usually have office hours in the evenings. And I told the class, I’ve got to cancel office hours because something personal is going on and I just have to deal with it.
And I was courting a woman. I was going to find out if she was going to be willing to marry me. So, I didn’t tell them that. I just said something personal. And 25 percent of the, or of the 25 kids in the class, about 17 or 18 emailed me that night just to say, I just want you to know I’m thinking of you or I’m praying for you or whatever.
And it changed the tenor of the class the whole rest of the term. Because this austere Professor Brooks was suddenly just another Joe trying to get through life. And I didn’t have to reveal much. Just a little that I was going through something personal. And it created a much tighter bond. And I think that’s, that can happen in a workplace.
It can happen in a classroom.
Tom: I’m going to where we started here. You wrote in your book, we live our childhoods at least twice. First, we live them through the eyes of wonderment, and then later in life, we have to revisit them to understand what it all meant. I’m going to turn that question back on you. And what have you discovered by revisiting your childhood?
David: That’s good. You know, I think, um, there’s a phrase I love in the book. It’s a quote from Aldous Huxley. “Experience is not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” And so we’re getting to know people. We want to get to know their subjective experiences. And I would say I have definitely revisited my childhood.
You know, I, I would, I remember in the first half of my life, I was happy. I was kind of, seemed kind of shallow, because I was so cheerful, you know, I was always like, I don’t need deep emotions, and I think in childhood, I just never got good at, well, frankly, being intimate with a lot of friends, and my, my nursery school teacher told my parents, David doesn’t play with the other kids, he just observes them.
And so that, that was perfect preparation for, for being a journalist, because we just observe other people. But I think as I went back in middle age, I went back and, and became dissatisfied with that, that little four year old me. And I wanted to change that. I wanted to… Change the way I was as a four year old And so I think I’ve re-experienced my own childhood in that way seeing it for all the glories it had I had a very happy childhood But for some of the things I never actually learned.
Tom: As you started to maybe grow and mature as a as a writer as early as maybe high school if you could jump in that time machine and sit down maybe as a interview subject with that high school version of you, how might a conversation go and maybe what questions would you want to ask the younger you and what questions would that person ask you?
David: I think, well, one of the things if I had to give advice to that younger me, and it would be on the subject of the book, I would say “Human beings need food and water, but they also need recognition just as much.” And as our friend Andy Crouch once wrote, recognition is the first human quest. People come out of the womb looking for a face.
And even babies, their vision, their vision is very sharp 18 inches away, where mom’s face is going to be when they’re nursing, and then it gets blurry. So to the, to a baby, the world looks like a bunch of Rembrandt paintings, a bunch of sharp faces with blackness behind, darkness and vagueness behind. And so if recognition is the first human quest, you want to be really good at recognizing people.
You want to be really good at offering them recognition. And I would say to that early me that you’re overvaluing, and I think this is true of a lot of college students, you’re overvaluing how much career is going to make you happy and undervaluing how much things like marriage is going to make you happy and intimate friendships is making you happy.
And I would say, you know, it’s just statistically true that somebody’s marriage is four times more powerful in determining their happiness than their career. And yet our educational system is all oriented around career, and so whether you’re married or not, whoever your, your type bond, your, your inner circle, you should spend a lot of time thinking about that.
And I tell my, I tell college presidents when I get a chance to meet them, marriage is so important. Every course at your college should be about the marriage decision. You should be reading George Eliot. You should be reading Jane Austen. You should be thinking about this thing instead of spending so much time on, you know, accounting.
I tell young people, major in the humanities. People think it’s woo woo and impractical, but the humanities is where you go to learn how other human beings operate. And if you can’t understand how other humans operate, you’re gonna be miserable and make them miserable. So I think the humanities are, are the most practical thing you can major in, and it’s a crime that we live in a society that seems to be dehumanizing at a rapid rate.
And this book is meant as a little stone thrown in support of the rehumanization of our society.
Tom: Do you think that imbalance and perhaps miscalculated expectations of the degree that professions are going to satisfy people versus relationships, is there a particular kind of bias in American culture itself?
Or, and have you seen that a lot in terms of where people expect their joy to come from?
David: Yeah, I think it’s, uh, our meritocracy is so competitive, uh, and I probably a little more competitive and a little more ruthless than in other places. Like we, now if you, especially if you’re very privileged, you’re trying to get into schools, which are determined to reject as many people as possible, you know, the schools now brag that they have a 4 percent admittance rate or a 5 percent admittance rate, but they should be saying we have a 95 percent rejection rate, uh, and we’re hurting 95 percent of the people who apply to us.
It’s nothing to be proud of. So when you’re faced with that sort of competition, and then that anxiety about your career, then people are going to get overly focused on that. And then I would say the larger issue is that the American educational system stops knowing how to talk about moral formation.
They stop knowing how to talk about relational skills and bonding, but they do do know how to talk about math and accounting and the things that are important in the academic subjects. And they do know how to talk about cognitive things. But I would say a lot of our systems are very poor at emotional knowledge.
And they think emotion is just some automatic thing that happens to you. That’s not true. You can educate your emotions. You know, you listen to Mozart, and you, you have a new experience. You have a new emotional experience. Or in my case, Taylor Swift. I know what it’s like to be a teenage girl on the stands while the guy I like is going out with a cheerleader.
Uh, and… I’ve widened my emotional repertoire by listening to music, or going to a museum, or looking at a painting. And so when I encounter another person, I’m more likely to know what they’re going through. There’s a concept that I’ve, I really came to like from a neuroscientist named Lisa Feldman Barrett, called emotional granularity.
And so kids have very bad emotional granularity. They can’t tell the difference between I hate you and I, I’m angry with you. Mom does something to a baby, the baby will say, I hate you, but they really mean I’m angry with you. It’s different. And Barrett says a lot of her patients can’t tell the difference between anxiety and depression, even though these are opposite emotional states, anxieties, you’re pumped up and depression, you’re low, but somebody with emotional granularity, who has read books, who has thought about relationships, who’s open with their body and their emotions, can tell the difference between a bunch of similar emotions like anxiety, frustration, anger, stress, and can tell these differences. So we want to become emotional experts. And I think that’s done through the arts and by having emotions and thinking about them.
Tom: Well, we’re on the cusp of your book release and now you have a lot of conversations ahead of you about relationships, but I’m wondering too, I feel like in my conversations with writers, they’re always thinking about next projects. And I don’t wanna put you on the, on the spot as in your next project, but I am curious about kind of subject areas of, kind of frontiers you’d like to explore, either in your columns or future book projects.
What kind of subject areas do you wanna kind of delve into next?
David: Yeah. I, I actually do know, and it it, it came to me over the last month or two. I wanna learn about merit. The, the, the history of the meritocracy is a history of arguments about what merit is. And so back in the 40s and 50s, universities like Harvard admitted like two thirds of the people who applied, and they did it on the basis sort of on academic ability, but also what they called good character.
But what they really meant was they wanted to admit rich boys from wealthy families in New England. And so they called that good character, they called that manhood. So then that was a terrible system. And so they, the universities changed and now sort on the basis of cognitive ability and the ability to get good grades between the ages of 15 and 25.
Yeah. This strikes me as a crazy way to sort our society. Yeah. Pleasing teachers between 15 and 25, big whoop, what is that going to do you? And in fact, there’s zero correlation between academic grades and your success in life. And so, in my view, our definition of the meritocracy is inadequate. Second, we’re about to get hit by AI, which is going to do a lot of the cognitive skills that we now call smart.
And so we’re going to have to redefine what our actual skill set is, as AI takes over some of those other skills. And then we’ve got a surge in populism, because the way we’ve sorted society has created these vast chasms between the educated elite and everybody else. And finally, the end of affirmative action means that schools are going to have to rethink merit.
So all these things are feeding into this idea that we, we need to do definition of merit. And so the question I have in front of me is, what is the definition of merit? What are the things that really define what makes a person lead a fulfilling and successful and generous and contributing life? And I have no idea what the answer to that question is, but hopefully I’ll find out over the next few years.
Tom: Yeah. Well, David, I want to wrap up with a fun question. Abby gave me a nudge and she would like to know what your favorite Taylor Swift song is.
David: Oh, well, it’s so cliched, but I love early Taylor more than, I love the current, you know, Anti-Hero and all that, but I’m such a traditionalist that I would have to say, well, the first song I discovered was her first big hit called Teardrops on my Guitar, or Tim McGraw, those were both early, but I would have to say the pinnacle of Swiftism is still Love Story, her Romeo and Juliet story.
Yeah. I think that is, that will go down in the centuries with Beethoven’s Fifth and Ode to Joy. That’s a masterpiece.
Tom: That is a bold comparison there. I was thinking you’d say the Beatles, but yeah, bring it back to Beethoven. Okay. All right. Well, there we’ve got it. Well, David, thanks so much for your, uh, taking the time to have this conversation today.
Tom: We covered a lot of great ground. I’m excited about your new book and its reception, and I am hoping that it will lead people to take those steps to cultivate relationships, ask good questions, experience the joy that it comes from interacting with people, being more deliberate about it, and then those focusing on the day-to-day mundane interactions in which real character is made.
David: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be on and I salute, I should take the opportunity to salute Templeton for all you guys do to help us understand these, these really human traits.
Abby: You’ve been listening to Templeton Ideas from the John Templeton Foundation, where we fund research and tell stories that inspire people with awe and wonder. We’re proud to support leading scientists, philosophers, and theologians from around the world. Learn about the latest discoveries related to black holes, complexity, forgiveness, and free will at templeton.org/news. If you like what you’ve heard so far, follow us and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Our program was produced by Jakob Lewis with Great Feelings Studios. Our theme song is by Dan Burns. Our staff includes Thomas Burnett, Abby Ponticello, Benjamin Carlson, David Nassar, and Alyssa Settefrati.