Intro. [Recording date: August 3, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is August 3rd, 2020, and my guest is author Margaret Heffernan. She is a professor of practice at the University of Bath, lead faculty for the Forward Institute's Responsible Leadership Program. Her latest book and the subject for today's conversation is Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future. Margaret, welcome to EconTalk.
Margaret Heffernan: Thanks very much. It's great to be talking to you.
Russ Roberts: So, your book opens with the story of three economic forecasters from the 1920s. They had a lot in common. Tell us how they lived and how they forecast and what that has to do with the theme of your book, Uncharted?
Margaret Heffernan: Sure. So, these are the three men who I think are broadly considered to be some of the founding fathers of forecasting as an industry, and probably the best known of them is Babson, partly because of the college which he founded. Babson really believed--and he was a fervent Newtonian and believed that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction.
He was really one of the first people in a whole line of economists who aspire to make economics really as pure a science as physics. He really placed great faith in this Newtonian concept, if you like--what we would now call boom and bust. And he believed he had a way of navigating the economy through those two extremes.
Irving Fisher, by contrast, was an academic. He was a man of immense young promise, and he was really very famous for his predictions and for providing advice to investors. And he was probably what today we would call a 'pundit,' which is: he had opinions about everything, not just financial markets, but things like how to improve your own productivity and be healthier, primarily through, strangely enough, eating Grape-Nuts. He thought the more you chewed, the more outstanding your athletic prowess would be. Something I remembered this morning having my Grape-Nuts.
And the last of these was Warren Persons. And, Persons founded the Harvard Forecasting Service, and he was really the opposite of the other two in the sense that the other two had kind of theories from which they worked out kind of what they thought would happen. And really, Persons thought that you just had to be a master statistician--which he was--and collect a vast amount of data--which he did. And, he was really embedded in Harvard and later, thanks to his partnership with Keynes, with Cambridge [?] University.
And the thing that was sort of a strange fact that unifies all of these men, although obviously what unifies them is they're the founding fathers of forecasting, is that they also had an early brush with tuberculosis. And so, what's very striking about them on a human level is they had a visceral understanding of uncertainty. You know, tuberculosis infected almost everybody at the turn of the century [c. 1900--Econlib Ed.], particularly people who lived in cities. And the strange thing about it as a disease was and is that you could have a brush with it and never experience it again--it would simply lie latent and have no impact on your future well-being--or, you could at any moment in your life have a second episode; and any one of those might kill you.
So, these were men who had a really deep and vested interest in trying to understand the future. They all had pretty quirky responses in terms of how to maintain a really healthy lifestyle. So, whereas Fisher believed in grape nuts, Babson believed in really cold weather, which since he lived in Massachusetts was pretty easy to rustle up. And there are these sort of hilarious pictures of him working through the winter in front of an open window wearing this kind of long, furry, monk's habit of a gown.
But, I think the main thing is, they weren't thinking of forecasting purely as an economic or scientific endeavor: they really, really had a deep need to be able to, if not see the future, make the future. And it's really at this point that you find that they're thinking of forecasting not just as gleaning what's out there, but if you think of the word and you think about a potter casting a pot, really trying to shape the future, too, by the kinds of advice that they gave people.
So, they're all intellectual giants in one way or another. They're all extremely eccentric. And they're all very convinced that at this moment, there is an opportunity to turn forecasting into a profession. Because, you have the telegraph, which means you can collect data all over the country, get people to send it to you. You have the capacity to analyze it, because this is the beginning of really serious statistical analysis. And you have publications with which, thanks to the railways, you can distribute all over the country. So, there is now a burgeoning new market for forecasting, too.
And so all three of them I think are motivated by good will in the sense that they think forecasting will help people make better decisions. They're very entrepreneurial. They have a passionate desire to share information, believing that if it's available to everybody--this is especially true of Babson--then they won't be ripped off by people who have more information. They're very, very confident of their pet theories. And they really all fail.
Russ Roberts: Part of the reason they fail is they make a lot of their predictions in the 1920s. And of course, the Great Depression comes along and makes everybody look--
Margaret Heffernan: Exactly. Well, it makes everyone except Babson look stupid because--but Babson gets it right for no other reason that they'd been forecasting a crash for three years running. So, at first, he's hugely celebrated and made famous by the fact that he got it right. And he uses that opportunity to buy up a lot of his failed competitors. But, then he gets it wrong because a couple of years later, he says, 'Well, we've had enough of this bust, so, obviously a boom is due any time now.' And it really wasn't. It was years and years away. But, Babson, it has to be said, is the one of these three who does end up and die a wealthy man.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to talk a little bit about your armchair theorizing on the psychology of these people, because I think it applies to all of us as individuals. Your book is about the fact that the future is unknowable: it's uncharted. But, we don't like that, and it makes us uncomfortable whether we have tuberculosis or not. And I couldn't help thinking, as I was reading your book--we're recording this in the middle of the pandemic. And one of the tough parts about this pandemic, I think for those of us who were lucky enough to keep our jobs and still be healthy, but there's still this question of: When is it going to end? And we really want to know. And I find myself foolishly looking at the data, looking for trends and patterns of comfort. And I think the human desire, first of all, for certainty, which we've talked about on the program before, in the episode with Robert Burton; and this human desire for control is so powerful that it creates this huge demand for this kind of punditry.
Margaret Heffernan: Well, I think you're exactly right; and it's not surprising that in the same period that Persons and Babson and Fisher are making their names as pundits is also really the first moment in history where astrology becomes big business. And I sort of toyed with the idea of writing about that, and then just thought, 'I really can't be bothered taking this stuff down. It's so silly. It's a waste of my time.' But, I think that, of course, this a period of great volatility--not only market volatility: it's a time of great inequality, the Gilded Age. So, there are some sort of similarities in mood. But I think you're absolutely right. I love Robert Burton's work. I think he's really one of the smartest people on this topic out there, from the position of someone who is a qualified and genuine neurologist.
But, clearly, we do have a passion for certainty. And I think the difficulty of this is that it leaves us wildly susceptible to pundits and profits and snake oil salesmen who sound so confident that we think, 'Well, they must know something that we don't know.' And in fact, one of the reasons I wrote this book was because people kept coming up to me and saying, 'Well,' in the context of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, 'What's going to happen?' In the context of the last presidential election, 'What's going to happen?'
And I kept thinking, 'Well, why are you asking me? Why do you think I know?' This is ridiculous. Right? Nobody knows.
And it just struck me that we have this kind of idea that what these questions embodied was the idea that the future lies behind a locked door, and a few special people have the key, and every now and then they're allowed a sneak peek. And, those are the people who know. And if you could just find out who they were and catch five minutes with them, then you'd have this special edge.
I thought, this is really magical thinking, and I accept--and of course, I'm not immune to this--I accept that not knowing is really upsetting. And like you, I'd really like to know when the pandemic is going to end and what the curve is going to end up looking like.
But, I also think that not knowing and knowing that I don't know--knowing that I can't know, and knowing that there aren't any of these special people out there--is incredibly liberating, because it makes me ask better questions. So, what would I do if it were over next week, or next month, or September, or Christmas, as our Prime Minister said with a horrible lack of sense of history. You know, well, what if it goes on for several years?
And so I can run those scenarios in my head and think, 'Okay, in each of those, what would I do?' And, 'Which of those could I do anyway, regardless of what the timeline is?' And that gives me a sense that it's not that I know the future, but I have some choices in front of me. And therefore what my future is going to be--over that I can have some control, and I have some agency, in a way that, if I place my fate in the hands of pundits and forecasters, I really don't.
Russ Roberts: And the other part of their, I think, appeal, and I know this as the host of EconTalk because I've interviewed many of these folks, and I've decided not to interview a bunch of others, is because people tell me, 'Oh, so, and so has this really fantastic model of X, and you should talk to them.' And the first time you think about that, you think, wouldn't it be great to have a model of X? Wouldn't it be great to know, say, when the next recession is, or how long the recovery is going to last, or what interest rates are going to be? And it's so seductive! And I think it's that--you know, I spent some time thinking about this because as I mentioned to listeners before, I'm writing a book on a related topic and your book is another book whose title I can't use now, but it's a great title. And I was thinking about the fact that, you know, 'Do squirrels go to bed at night thinking, I wonder if I collected too many acorns or too few for the winter?' Other than the fact that they're twitching uncontrollably on my bird feeder--which I hate, as they eat my bird seed--I think they lead a pretty serene life at night. Because they can't imagine the future. In a way, it's all we can do. We think relentlessly about: What's next and what's at risk, and what's at stake and how will I cope with it, and will it be good? Talk about the role memory plays in this that--it's very interesting neuroscience that you refer to.
Margaret Heffernan: So, you know, very often the response to the anxiety that uncertainty provokes is this kind of alternative, which is: Just live in the moment. Just live in the moment, forget the past--
Russ Roberts: Be a squirrel.
Margaret Heffernan: Just be a squirrel. Exactly. And that kind of sounds nice except that actually we can't: that it's actually one of the signal features of our brain--which is it's constantly creating scenarios of what the next minute, the next hour, the next day, the next month, the next year might look like.
And, there's a fantastic neuroscientist in the United Kingdom at the University of London named Eleanor Maguire. And, she really made her name, first of all, by studying the brains of drivers qualifying for the London cab exam--which means that you have to memorize about 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross Station, which is right near Trafalgar Square in the center of London.
And what she discovered was that everybody pretty much started, from a neuroscientific perspective when she scanned their brains--everybody started from pretty much a level playing field. Nobody was kind of, had a particularly brilliant memory or anything like that.
But, when they finished, she found that, as she scanned their brains, that the people who qualified to be London cab drivers had a significantly, and large amount of gray matter in their hippocampus--which is responsible for memory.
So, this was regarded as a great breakthrough, demonstrating the neuroplasticity of the brain.
So, then she became interested in memory. And she discovered that people who are amnesiacs--so they can't remember the past--also could not imagine the future. So, if you like--they did live in the moment, but in a way that I think none of us would really like to.
And, what her subsequent work has demonstrated is that, actually, the way we think about the future is we're retrieving memories and reconfiguring them. So, it isn't that--so, our brains aren't like computers. We're not retrieving a file. We're reenacting them and reassembling them in the present to see the future.
So, the easiest way to describe this is: I'm going from my house in the South of London, to my sister's house in the North of London. I have a path I always take. But, I remember that last time there were roadwork somewhere. And, as I'm driving, I also see a sign saying there's roadwork somewhere else. So, I reconfigure my pieces of the route to construct the future route, which I will now take in the present.
So, we live across all three time zones. We're taking the ingredients from the past; we're rearranging them to create a scenario of the future that gets us to our destination on time.
And, of course, this plays havoc with the legal system. When people want to give testimony about, so exactly what did happen three and a half months ago?
But, it's the source of new ideas. It's a source of creative thinking. And it's really what gives us the capacity to change, if you like. And of rearranging all the pieces of the jigsaw to create a new picture.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm a big fan of living in the present.
But, I think it's easy to forget--as you say, you can't really live there all the time, because there's groceries to buy and children to pick up from school and plans to make, if you want to achieve something in your career or with your community or your family and so on.
So, I think it's a balancing act that human beings have to struggle with. And, very easy, though, for us to either get lost totally in the past, just constantly pulling up--unconsciously, often--just memories that haunt us. Or, living in the future: imagining things that can't actually happen or are not feasible, but we like them better than where we are now. So, we fantasize about them.
Margaret Heffernan: But, I think, really, one of the really positive things about Eleanor Maguire's work--and there's a huge amount in it that's positive, and I think quite inspiring--is that, to the degree that you really live in the present--so, you really notice what's around you; you really notice the people that you're talking to, and you think about what they're saying; in other words, you're really paying attention--you have better ingredients with which to craft these ongoing scenarios of the future.
And, to the degree that, as you're walking down the street, you're looking at your phone and you don't particularly notice where you are and you don't really particularly notice the people or the stores or the weather or whatever, you have a pretty depleted stock cupboard.
And, you know, one of my concerns is that as we get very beguiled by the virtual world, we fail to pay attention to the real world, and therefore when we come to concoct a new image or a new idea, the cupboard's pretty bare.
And so, the living in the moment and really paying attention to where you are and allowing yourself to explore, and not necessarily following Google Maps, but actually just wandering around your neighborhood and noticing what's there, who's there, what's happening--this is, if you'd like, a very, very much more nutritious way of experiencing life than through your phone.
Russ Roberts: Well, I like to think that, but that's partly because I'm 65 years old. I think our younger listeners would disagree with you, and I look forward to hearing from them. I think there are rich things that come from the virtual world, depending on what part of it you dwell in.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to talk a little bit about two things that you really spend some significant time on in the book, and they're both fascinating. One is Scenario Planning, which is what you're alluding to, and the second is experimenting.
And, my--I think personally, I want to think about it in my personal life, more than say in a business context--when I think about Scenario Planning and my personal life, I think it has many of the shortcomings of the virtual world that you're worrying about. Which is: It's so bereft, my imagination about where I'm headed, say, in my career or my personal life--it's so bereft of detail and the richness and texture of that, that using it as a guide for where I want to go--because I don't have--in the business world, I've got profit. I've got to stay in business. I may care about things other than profit, but if I don't stay in business, the game's over.
So, in the business world, there's a metric. The scenario planning, I think in the personal world is extremely difficult to implement because--I'm not sure where I want to go, and I have a limited vision of where I could go. And as time unfolds, I'm going to get more information and learn about opportunities I can't imagine now. What are your thoughts on that?
Margaret Heffernan: Well, I think Scenario Planning is simply a way of fully imagining options. So, there's a lot of misunderstanding about Scenario Planning. One is that it's about coming up with different views of the future and then choosing one--
Russ Roberts: That's what I'm complaining about, I guess.
Margaret Heffernan: And that's not what it's about. It's really about coming up with a number of different scenarios of the future and then interrogating each one and saying, 'Okay, if Scenario One were to come true, what would I wish I had been doing right now in order to put myself in a stronger position for that eventuality?' And similarly, with Scenario Two, Three, and Four.
And so, what it really is at its best at is surfacing choices, options, and alternatives.
And I think actually it is quite possible to live with this. I remember--oh, I don't know, probably 2010 to 2012--having a number of arguments with my husband about when the next banking crash would be. And it suddenly struck me, this was just a stupid argument. Right? Because neither of us knew. No little economic fairy had sprinkled gold dust on us.
And, I said, 'Okay, let's ask a different question. Let's ask the question: If there is another banking crash, or when there is another banking crash, what will we wish we had been doing right now?' And, we thought through that in some pretty gritty detail about where we would want our investments to be, where we would want to be, what resources we would want to have. And so we slightly changed some of the things we were doing. We accelerated some things. We put other things on hold. And, what it did is it left us feeling, 'Okay, we don't know what the future is, but we think we've placed ourselves in a reasonably robust context.' And actually that's pretty much all we can do.
So, we can stop having this stupid argument for a start, and get on and enjoy our lives. You know, feeling that, to the degree that it's possible, we've done the responsible things.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I think that's a great thought, and I think, especially looking at the downside of those potential calamities, preparing for those seems like a good idea. I know a lot of Americans have increased their inventory of tuna--in the can, tuna fish--because if the pandemic gets worse again and there are shortages in the store, it's dangerous to go to the grocery: at least they'll have a couple dozen cans of tuna fish. That's a silly example, but it's indicative of what we're talking about. Which is: part of it is when you get a knock on the head, you start worrying about when it might happen again. But, part of it is just realizing, as you said: when it happens, it's not what's important. It's the fact that it probably is going to happen, and maybe I should have a little more cash in the case of investing, etc. We don't give investment advice on this program. Of course, consult with your financial advisor.
Russ Roberts: But, let's talk about experiments. Because I think experiments are greatly underrated. Two things have happened while I was reading your book. One is I interviewed Matt Ridley about his book, How Innovation Works, and you realize that so many of the great discoveries of our lives that we live by, are not because some genius saw some magical solution. They just kept trying until something worked. They kept throwing stuff at the wall.
And the second thought I had this week was that Jeff Bezos testified in front of Congress, and in an extraordinary document in his testimony, he defended Amazon, and he defended America along the way, which was kind of interesting. But, it's one of his sub-themes in that document was how many times Amazon has failed: that they have lost billions of dollars through failure: experiments that didn't make it. And the ones that did make it like their cloud services, a lot of people thought was a waste of time, a distraction. Turned out to be an enormous victory for them. So, talk about experimentation in general, and then particularly if there's any role it can play in our personal lives.
Margaret Heffernan: So, when I think I'm not surprised by what Bezos says, because the willingness to do experiments without gaming the outcome and to try something--because you genuinely do not know what will happen--you know, it's fundamental to innovation. But I think in many, many of the corporations that I've worked with, it's absolutely not what they do. They don't want to do an experiment until they feel kind of 90% confident it will be what they want it to be.
And we've also seen, what I think of as the rise of incrementalism. Which is: I'm going to call it experiment, but it's not, really. And the way I think about this is, 'Well, we used to have--you know, Oreos: traditional chocolate biscuit and the vanilla filling. And then we innovated and at Halloween, it's an orange filling, and St. Patrick's Day, it's a green filling, and, you know, Easter it's a purple filling. This is not an experimentation. Right? This is real[?] lame--lame incrementalism.
And I think a great deal of what passes for innovation in many corporations is that. And it's because nobody wants to make the gamble. Nobody wants to invest the time or effort.
And there is--well, as much as people often say, there is this sort of sense that, 'Well, if you fail, that's a failure,' and you'll have wasted time, effort, and money; and that's the worst thing you can do. So, everybody stays on the right path.
And, I think we've seen that nowhere so brutally as in retail, where everybody has been very happy to use Amazon as the scapegoat for their own failure, but actually you've seen an absolute dearth of experimentation in bricks and mortar retail. I mean, I'm just astounded at how everybody has sat there, petrified, doing pretty much nothing except what they're used to, which is, 'Yay, let's compete on cost.' That'll be fantastic, you know. And it's absurd. It's absurd.
So there are two experiments, I guess, that I'm most fond of in the book. One of them is about a Dutch homecare nursing organization, and there are a lot of healthcare experiments in my book, as you know, because everybody's trying to figure out how can we do this better for less?
So, in the Netherlands--which I'm also fond of this, because I grew up in the Netherlands--but, a huge amount of the healthcare system revolves around home care nursing, because we know if people can get home from the hospital sooner, they recover better, in general. So, a lot of emphasis is placed on this.
And they used to do it the way that it's certainly done in many, many places, which is: you are allocated a nurse for a certain amount of time. You know, sort of five minutes on Monday, seven minutes on Wednesday, nine minutes on Friday; it was covered by an insurance company that strictly defined exactly what you'd paid for. And, everybody hated it. The nurses and the patients, both.
And a very interesting guy who is both an economist and a nurse, which is a pretty unusual combination--
Russ Roberts: Yup--
Margaret Heffernan: said, 'This is so hateful. Let's just try something different.'
And he had a very brilliant insight, I think, which is, he said, 'Actually, this looks like one piece of work, but it's actually really two.' There's one part which is complicated, which means it's very predictable and it's the same every time. That's about the contract, the assignment of the nurse, the handing out of invoices, the collecting of money and all that kind of stuff. He said, 'And that's predictable. Let's use technology to streamline that to make it super, super, super efficient, because technology is best at things that are repeatable. The thing that's complex is the patient.' Because even two patients that leave the same hospital at the same moment, with the same condition, they will recover at different rates. So, they are inherently unpredictable. The patients are complex, not complicated. So, we can't say how much time they're going to need in one day, that's ridiculous. Let's just say to the nurses, 'Do what you think is right. You're a nurse, use your judgment.'
And the outcome of this experiment was that the cost of this style of home care nursing fell by 30%, because the patients got better in half the time as audited by EOI[?Evidence of Insurability, Great Britain?].
What's so striking about this, when I asked him, 'What surprised you about this experiment?' And he just burst out laughing. He said, 'I had no idea you could make such a huge difference so easily.' You could never have cut costs to this outcome, ever. You had to kind of break the complex and the complicated apart. And I think it was EY[EOI? inaudible 00:30:59] who estimated that if you applied this same thing to U.S. healthcare, it would save, and I think I'm right, something in the region of $45 billion a year.
I mean, it's just a massive, massive return for a very simple experiment. But, it's not an incremental[?] experiment. Right? It's just: I don't know what would happen. Only way to find out is: let's do it.
Russ Roberts: I hate to say this, but to some extent, $45 billion is a little bit like a deck chair on the Titanic. But, it is real money, $45 billion--and it is real money.
Margaret Heffernan: It's also happier patients. You know, and actually, that's kind of what healthcare is about.
Russ Roberts: And, happier nurses too, I'm sure, who felt more agency, joy from their job instead of following a set of requirements.
Margaret Heffernan: Exactly. Exactly.
Russ Roberts: So, let's think about--go ahead.
Margaret Heffernan: No, the other experiment is one that was carried out at the Bank of England by the Chief Data Officer who was in a position, I think many executives are in, which is : 'The volume of work is going to increase exponentially. Oh, by the way, the resources won't.'
Russ Roberts: Shrinking, yeah.
Margaret Heffernan: Instead of doing what lots of executives do, go for a weekend in a swanky hotel somewhere and try to figure it out. You know, he just said to the whole team, 'This is where we are. I want any idea I can get for how to improve our productivity.' And hey came from all over the place. You know, people who said, 'Well, if we understood the strategy better, we'd be more productive. So, we want to sit in on the leadership team weekly meeting.' They said, 'Fine.' It made no difference at all. Everybody discovered they're really boring: 'Just forget it.'
Another suggestion; The appraisal system stinks. Nobody believes it, let's change it completely. That made a huge difference in terms of people feeling they were seen and that they mattered and they had a career.
So, it's changed it completely. That made a huge difference in terms of people feeling they were seen and that they mattered, and they had a career. Some very young engineers, kind of almost at the bottom of the hierarchy, come up with a different way of tagging the data; it's a 10X improvement.
Russ Roberts: 10X--
Margaret Heffernan: So, lots of these ideas came and kept coming and kept coming.
So, that solved his problem. So, that's a great experiment.
But, what he said to me, I think was really interesting, which were two things. One, he realized in doing this experiment where all his colleagues were saying, 'Oh, this is pretty edgy. You're going to get in trouble'--it actually made him a hero. He had much more freedom in his institution than he had realized.
And the other thing he said is, you know, 'I always thought strategy was the province of the higher-ups.' And he actually said, 'I realized that great strategic ideas are no respecter of hierarchy. They were all over the place.' And, 'There was just a huge amount talent that I hadn't been using.' That's a really great finding from an experiment that cost, really, nothing.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's an example of leveraging the knowledge that the people throughout an organization have, that the people at the top can't have--literally can't have. Giving them the voice to express those ideas, using the knowledge they have, and then giving them, again, the sense of agency that their suggestions could be tried is such an obviously good idea, but hard often for people in a hierarchy to stomach. So, it's a great example.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to turn to our personal--so, that's in a business context or policy context, and I think trial and error is greatly undervalued: they are underrated. And a part of it is fear of failure, as you said: fear of being blamed.
Essentially, as an organization gets bigger, they get more cautious; and I think Bezos is to be saluted to the extent that he can still maintain that, what he calls a Day One Mentality--that they have to experiment and to stay ahead of their rivals, which I think is just fascinating.
But, I'm interested in the personal context. It's very hard, I think for individuals to, quote, "try stuff." Even though it's just trying it; it's not committing to it.
Obviously, a pretty big[?] example of this is dating. Dating is a way we try to get an idea of what marriage is like. But it seems to me that in the career field and in the--how we think about our life unfolds outside of our families--career, social activities, community work that we do that we hope will make the world a better place--we don't do much experimentation, and I think it's undervalued in our daily lives a little bit.
Margaret Heffernan: I think it's hugely undervalued, and I'm really struck by the number of people that I know or have interviewed who've had tremendous careers. And when you dig into, how did they do that? The answer is absolutely not, 'This is how I planned it.' It's the exact opposite. It's like, 'Well, I tried this and I didn't like it, so I tried that.' So, I interviewed--just thought of some random examples--a youngish woman who, all her life she'd wanted to be a doctor. So, she went to med school, and she became a doctor; and she discovered she really hates patients. But, you know, all was not lost. She went on to do medical research and now she really loves that. So, that's okay.
Another young woman who went into PR (Public Relations) decided that was really flaky and went and trained as a lawyer, and now has a very successful career as a family lawyer handling divorces, which, strangely enough, if anything, our boom industry post pandemic. And her brother, who really wanted to be a lawyer, who worked in a law office for a year and thought, 'Oh, yikes, I can't stand these stuffy lawyers.' But, he really loves sport, and now he works for one of the world's premier sports marketing businesses.
And there's a fantastic woman in my book who had a whole series of illnesses when she was young, with a result that she never got any real educational qualifications, never went to university, ended up doing digital marketing for De Beers, then ended up doing digital communications for antiterrorism measures, working for the U.K. government, and now lives in Pennsylvania doing digital marketing for all sorts of online businesses.
You know, none of this is planned. It's all about experiments.
Even of myself, I would say--I started off wanting to be a theater director. I ended up working at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). I was very successful very young. And so, by the time I was 35, I thought, 'Wow, there has to be more to life than this,' and moved to the United States where I spent nine years running tech companies. And then moved back to the United Kingdom where I've been writing and advising CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) around the world. You know, this is what they call here, a 'very squiggly career,' and it's all about experiments. You know, I fetched up in Boston without a clue what I was going to do.
Russ Roberts: It seems to me this is related to this issue of control and uncertainty that we talked about before. I remember, I think I was 14, and a classmate of mine asked me what I was going to major in, in college? And I said, 'I have no idea.' He said, 'Well, you have to know soon.' And of course, you really don't even have to know after a year or two at college--in America, at least. I think in the United Kingdom, it's a little more regimented. In other countries, it's a little more regimented. But I think it's one of the great gifts of the United States, of our culture and our institutions, that we don't force people to a career path early, and we let people deviate from it early and often.
I remember going home to my dad and saying, 'Dad, do I have to know?' He said, 'No, of course you don't have to know.' And it was a great relief off my mind. But I think if you're worried about the future and the uncertainty knowing I'm going to major in this, and then I'm going to do that--and, I mentioned this before: I have a son who is a philosophy major. And people say, 'Well, what's that good for?' The answer is, 'Thinking.' Pretty valuable skill. But, the idea that he doesn't have a clear career thing like dentist or accountant at the end of it--it scares people and it's hard to deal with.
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah. Well, it does scare people. But I think, the truth is that you don't--when you're 18, 19, whatever--you don't know who you're going to be. And so, how can you possibly make this decision at a moment in your life where, a) you don't know you, and b) you often have very little experience of work. So, you don't really understand what any of the options are. And the only way to find out--like the healthcare experiment--is you just try stuff; and you discover the kinds of environments in which you're happy, the kinds of colleagues that you like having.
And also, you have to bear in mind--and this is especially true now in general, human life spans are increasing--that you may love something, as I loved broadcasting for 13 years; and then think, 'Yeah, I really love it, but wow, I don't want to spend the next half of my life doing the same old things. So, I want to try something different.'
I think that, if my kids are all going to live to be 100, they have to have a love of learning and enough curiosity to have several careers. And so it seems to me that, certainly when thinking about education, the prime thing we want to instill in children is not knowledge per se--which will keep shifting--but a love of learning; and being really, really good at learning; and thinking that this is fun, not something that you just want to get over with as soon as humanly possible.
Russ Roberts: Very well said.
Margaret Heffernan: I think your dad sounds great.
Russ Roberts: He's even better than that, because another classmate asked me what--we were talking about what we wanted to be when he grew up, and he said--when he went to college, he was going to study Latin. I said, 'Well, that's interesting.' Again, I'm about 15 years old at this point. And--I actually remember his name, I'm not going to use it on the air--but it's interesting: he wasn't a close friend of mine, but this conversation stuck with me. He said he was going to study Latin. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Well, I want to be a lawyer, and there's a lot of Latin phrases in law.' And I thought, 'Oo, really?' And again I asked my dad, and he said, 'It's just a short list and you kind of memorize it.'
And my dad was full of wisdom. I was very lucky.
Russ Roberts: I want to change gears here, and I want to talk about a section of the book which I really especially loved, which was the idea of being an artist. We had Azra Raza on this program talking about dying like an artist. She talked about, in her book, The First Cell, some of her patients, how gracefully they dealt with their last time on earth, and that there was an artistry about it. And, you talk about how to live like an artist. And I love that idea. I think it's pretty ambitious. So, talk about what you mean by that and how we can live like an artist.
Margaret Heffernan: Well, first of all, I'm really glad you enjoyed the chapter because my editor sort of asked me: Did I think it was really essential? It's a bit like asking you, are all your children really necessary?
Russ Roberts: Yeah: don't they understand?
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah. So, I'm grateful to you for that.
The reason that's in there is because, when I worked in broadcasting, I had a huge pleasure of working with a lot of really outstanding artists--writers, playwrights, actors, musicians, visual artists. And, I started noticing lots of things about them. One of them was that quite a lot of them were fantastically good at doing something today that ended up being exactly what people wanted two to three years hence. And I was just constantly puzzling how they did that. And it wasn't about prediction. It was: They were fantastic sense-makers, and they generally wandered around--is really the simple answer. Which is: they really paid attention to where they were and what people were thinking and what different things they saw change. And they were constantly mulling over this and thinking, 'What does it mean? What does it mean? What's on people's nerve endings?' You know. And they necessarily lived in a context of uncertainty. They didn't know if they were going to make enough money to live on this year. They didn't know when they started a work, whether it would be finishable, if it would be any good, if the public would like it. They weren't kind of trying to game the system. They weren't trying to please the market. They would kind of go at[?]--they had a tremendous sense of agency and a desire to make something meaningful. So, they were constantly thinking about, 'What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean?'
And, I think it's from that kind of way of being that they derived the opportunity--the capacity--to create work today that may last for decades or hundreds of years. And so they're not stuck in a prison of a brand of thinking, 'Well, I'm this kind of person; I've got to do this kind of work.' They have a great sense of freedom and imagination. And of course, they have quite a lot of courage in terms of starting something, which they don't know how it will finish.
And I think of all of these, the one who took my breath away most is my friend, the novelist Sebastian Barry, who started a book, started writing it for nine months, and then threw it all out and started again, a completely new style, a completely new chapter--and a prize-winning book. And I just think, 'Oh my God, the notion of throwing away nine months' work is like a dagger through my heart.' But, you know, he was just--of course, what he would say is the nine months' work was not wasted. You had to do all of that work to come to the first sentence that he wrote in the final book.
And, I think that courage to keep thinking, 'Is it right? Is it right? Is it right? Does it feel right? Does it really honor what I'm trying to do? What am I trying to do?' This is what Hannah Arendt calls having a conversation with yourself--which is how she defines thinking.
And, I'm so impressed by the capacity artists have to tolerate uncertainty. And it isn't that it isn't--it's not that it's painless for them. The artist, Tracey Emin says before she starts painting, she's often so nervous, she has to sketch a bit to kind of get herself courageous enough to do the first stroke. So, it isn't that it's painless for them, but they can't not do it. And they can't not walk down the streets and think about what does it mean?
And so I think there's a lot for us to learn. Not that we can all be artists, but we can think like artists. We can be these kind of sense-makers that artists are. And I think that's both enriching of life and enriching of work.
Russ Roberts: I think it was Kafka who said, 'I threw myself into the story, even though it might cut me to pieces.' There's a certain vulnerability that an artist has to live with also that I think is really important.
But, the part I really liked that seems like a small thing, I want to just emphasize; and it comes back to our earlier conversation: It's the ability to pay attention. Now, we think of--when you think of a great writer, it's somebody who is good at writing. A great sculptor is good with a knife; or a brush is a great artist. A great musician is good with notes.
But, so much of great art comes from what I would call, just paying attention. Looking at how people behave, looking for a moment of poetry and daily life that you might capture in a story or a novel.
And I think one way, for me, the way I try to resolve or live with the tension between living in the moment versus living with an eye toward the future is that: if you pay attention, you can live in the present in a way that doesn't preclude living into the future. In fact, it's going to make the future richer.
You know, you and I are having a conversation, I'm trying to listen to what you have to say. And by doing that, I hope--obviously I hope I'm making something together with you that listeners will enjoy and learn from and find interesting--but we're also having a moment together that's just itself, just this two people connecting. We're about--I don't know, 5,000 miles, 4,000 miles apart. It's really an extraordinary thing. And, I'm just going to try that for a minute; and I'm going to pay attention to your uniqueness. Right? And it's not just, 'Oh, she had a lot of interesting things to say.' Which is true. But there's 50 other things that if I'm not paying attention, I miss about the human experience.
And I think an artist does that naturally. I think it comes naturally to a great artist. It's just, you know, I think about somebody like Faulkner, who has this unbelievable rich view of human nature, what he called the human heart in conflict with itself. How do you capture that? Well, you pay attention. And you're a good writer too, obviously. But the paying-attention part gets forgotten.
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, it does. And it's really interesting the way that so many great writers walk. They just walk cities. You walk countryside. And they're just looking; and there's no goal. And it's not like I have to go out and research this, they're just paying attention.
And it's so interesting that you mentioned Faulkner, because there's a line--I mean, there are two lines, actually, from Light in August that are germane to this. One is, and I think it's Chapter Six, but I may be wrong about that: 'Being knows before knowing remembers.' Which is, if you like--
Russ Roberts: Say that again. Say that again.
Margaret Heffernan: 'Being knows before knowing remembers.'
Russ Roberts: Explain.
Margaret Heffernan: So it's like, we absorb these sensations and they're unconscious before we then notice them. And then there are memories.
So it's a perfect encapsulation of Eleanor Maguire's work about how our mind works. That we sweep these things up and then we pay attention to them, and then they become memories.
The other thing which shows him doing just that is, I remember there's a character in Light in August and he describes her as wearing her hair as a bun, which was like a wart on the top of her head. And it's just such a fantastic description. You know; and you think he's seen this somewhere, and you don't know where he's seen it, but he's seen it somewhere because you just think, 'How else could you come up with such a--?' I mean, you just can see this woman now, the same way that he could see that woman, that he must have seen somewhere.
And I think this act of wandering and noticing--I mean, Saul Bellow says, you know, 'Be a great noticer.'
And I think this is the thing I found in all the artists that I had the pleasure of working with, all the artists I've had the joy of writing about. Ibsen--you know, just a phenomenal noticer; and the world championed gossip. There's sort of, nothing is beneath his notice; but he's, one of his, I think his daughter-in-law said, 'You always had to tell him a story twice because the first time he was interested in the story and the second time he's interested in the detail.' And as Nora Ephron would say, 'It's all copy.'
Russ Roberts: It's all what, 'copy'?
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Meaning, material.
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah. The thing is, it's not collected with a purpose. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier: it just goes into the store cupboard of your mind for when you might need it, rather like the [inaudible 00:51:55], right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm thinking about Ryan Holiday, who likes to take a lot of note cards and notes of quotes that he likes. I've interviewed him a number of times on the program. Or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who likes to talk about being a flaneur--one who just strolls aimlessly.
And, you know, we've kind of lost the art of that, obviously, because when we stroll aimlessly now, we're usually we're looking at our phone. There is--
Margaret Heffernan: And we usually have a destination in mind.
Russ Roberts: True.
Margaret Heffernan: And, I think--the thing I see with some dismay is, you know, my friends who will plan--in the days when we used to travel--you know, we'll plan, let's say a weekend in Barcelona, and they'll research the hotel and book it, and research the restaurants and book it, and research the best sites and book tickets for that. And they'll figure out the best walks and all this stuff. And, you know, by the time they get on the plane to go, I think they may as well not even bother, because what they're going to do is they're going to see a generic Barcelona. They've already seen it in their heads. And what they're not allowing themselves to do, what their schedule won't allow themselves to do, is just step outside and wander around and see what's what, and figure it out from there. And let Barcelona happen to you. But, they have already foreclosed that possibility. And they think they're being fantastically efficient. But in foreclosing uncertainty, they've really left out finding their Barcelona.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There's a trade off there, obviously. I'm big on--it's a matter, I think a lot of it's personal taste. I like to go to a city and just literally walk around. That's my favorite thing. I do end up going to a museum or two. But, if you're not careful, if you don't make the reservation in advance, you can't get into that museum. Of course, that's not the biggest loss. Often, you're going to see something else that you like, but I'm going to now--I think, as a metaphor for life, finding your own Barcelona, I think is a really great idea.
And--I've mentioned this on the program before--I think a lot of young people today do feel this urgency to plan out and map out their future. And I think some of that comes from the nature of the world today and the uncertainty that people have to deal with student loans and other things. But, also, my worry comes from our technology, which promises this illusion of a secure world with less uncertainty. And they--if we're not careful, I think we buy into that; and we program our vacation the way we program our trip, via Waze[?]. I just, 'Oh, here are the turns. Here's the restaurant. Here's the museum. And then we've got to stop and look at this particular bridge. Oh, and if I do it right, we can fit in this other thing over here, this statue we're supposed to see when we're there.'
I had a great gift when I went to London for the first time: One of my English friends said--I said, 'What should I do?' He said, 'Well, the British Museum, of course.' And then he listed five or six other things that he recommended. And I almost--when he said 'The British Museum, of course,' I thought, 'Well, I guess.' Not realizing it's the greatest museum in the world. And I got there with no expectations, and saw 50 things that just blew me away. It was one of the most glorious things--because I hadn't consulted the guidebook. I hadn't said, 'Well, I've only got three hours there. I've got to make sure I see this, this, this, and this.' And it was just great.
So, stumbling onto things. And, as a metaphor again, I think for life, career, and experience, I think is--it's good advice.
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah. What a wonderful way to experience the British Museum. Absolutely fantastic. I remember going into a somewhat smaller museum in London, kind of wandering around; it was a kind of weird mixture of things. But, I remember walking into one room and right opposite me was this painting by Anselm Kiefer, and it just had this gravitational pull. It just sucked you in. And you thought, 'Oh my God, what is that?' You know, and that's an electrifying moment, when a picture kind of reaches out and grabs you by the scuff of the neck and says, 'Look at me. Look at me and think about what this is.'
And, that's the whole point--right?--of going to the museum. Not saying, 'Okay, there are three Van Goughs, I've seen those. Two Rembrandts. Now, where are the two Rembrandts, because I have to see those before I leave.' Just allow yourself to discover.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, I think that's exactly right.
So, I have to confess that when I did get to the British Museum, I did get the list of 10 things you should see if you only have a few hours at the British Museum. But, I stopped, and I wandered into the room that was full of clocks and watches, which wasn't on the list. It was one my favorite things. It was amazing, this room with these incredible clocks--and they probably had 400,000 more in the back room that they haven't put out lately, they just probably rotate them. It's just fantastic.
The other thing like that--you know, I went to t he Musee d'Orsay recently in Paris; I was lucky to be able to go there. And, I think that's my favorite art museum in the world. And, there are many glorious, famous things there. But there's a room in that museum that has some paintings that are--I don't know, they're like--I'm going to guess and say they're like 30 by 40 feet. That was one of my favorite parts.
Again, I just wandered into that room. I could have missed it, even. Make sure I saw all the famous things. And I just think it's important in life to leave time for those surprises.
Margaret Heffernan: Definitely. And I think that's--that's how you have your own experiences. That's how you become aware of yourself and where you are and how you're changing; and that's what informs the decisions that you'll make about your own future--is being alert to yourself and to the world. And to the degree that you are really most alert to your phone, I think everybody becomes rather the same. And I remember--actually thinking this several times before the pandemic and being on the subway in London and thinking, 'Everybody looks the same. They've all got the same style, the same hairdo, the same eyebrows,' you know, and this is what I think of as the Instagram effect, which is 'Everybody can see what's what and they're all copying it.' And it's kind of horrible.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Margaret Heffernan: It's kind of horrible. And it's just like, 'Oh, for heaven's sakes, put your phone down. Go offline. Find yourself in weird details and special things that you and you alone will notice.'
Russ Roberts: Let's close and talk about death. Appropriate for a final subject. You talk about the virtues of not living forever. We live in a culture--you particularly talk about Silicon Valley, a phrase I hadn't heard before. I'm going to see if I can pronounce it correctly, the 'Methuselararity.'
Russ Roberts: It's a cross between the singularity and Methuselah, and it's a reference to Aubrey de Grey. Of course, there's a natural human impulse, which I certainly am sympathetic to, which is: Death isn't any good. It's bad. I want to live longer. And that this--you could see medicine itself is an attempt to overturn this, to fix it. But, you also, you suggest that death could be experienced in a different way. And of course, that affects how we experience life. Talk about that.
Margaret Heffernan: Yeah. I guess this came to me in several ways. One was thinking that the whole Silicon Valley desire to live forever was just useless. You want to use all this great brain power, do something useful, like figure out why longevity is declining in many parts of the United States. You know: fix the healthcare system, fix climate change, do something useful. And it struck me--
Russ Roberts: They're working on that, too. You've got to give them some credit, but go ahead. I take your point.
Margaret Heffernan: But, that's a crisis in a way that for--getting rich people to live a little bit longer is really not a crisis.
And it struck me that actually, we don't want people to live forever. We wouldn't have wanted PoL Pot to live forever. We wouldn't have wanted Hitler to live forever. I dare say we have some political leaders in the world today that we would be absolutely horrified by the notion that they would never die, they would never go away.
So, I thought the idea of living forever was kind of fundamentally fatuous. But, I was also very struck by the number of people I've known--and I know them well, because I think otherwise we wouldn't have had these conversations--who, as much as they love their parents, realized after they stopped grieving for them, that they had a large sense of freedom. And it wasn't that they were better or at all angry about the way in which they had consciously or unconsciously aimed to please their parents. But, that when their parents were no longer there, then it was just them deciding who they were, where they wanted to spend Christmas, what they wanted to do with their lives.
That, the subtle ways in which we all absorb our parents' judgment, it was gone. And it was wonderful. And I thought, of course, like any parent, 'I love my children to bits. And, the thing that upsets me about the idea of my death is that I know it will upset them; and I really love not to upset them.' But I also feel that, after they've stopped grieving for me, they will have me, in them, in terms of learning and experiences and memories and things we've shared together and things they know about me and things they know about my parents, whom they never knew. And that in that way, we do live forever. But, in a way that's free for them, and that they will shape in their heads as the free individuals I have always wanted them to be.
That seems to me the very best gift I can leave them. And so I think this notion of trying to hang around forever with just an accumulated sense or accumulating sense of losses, of habits I love that people no longer have, of grammar I love that people no longer use, or systems or places or companies or products that I loved and that are obsolete or gone--this accumulation of losses, century after century--is such a terrible idea.
Whereas, the notion of using the time we have carefully with real value and seeing it as precious and seeing the last gift to one's friends and family as leaving those memories with them to make of what they want--I think that's quite inspiring for me.
Russ Roberts: Couldn't agree more. My guest today has been Margaret Heffernan. Her book is Uncharted . Margaret, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Margaret Heffernan: Well, thank you for a really wonderful and, dare I say it, really memorable conversation.
Russ Roberts: Thanks Margaret.
Margaret Heffernan: Thank you.