20th May, 2022
Dwarkesh Patel blogs about about tech, science, and the long-term. He is also the host of The Lunar Society Podcast. Previous guests include David Deutsch, Tyler Cowen, and Bryan Caplan.
Recently, one of his blogposts on The mystery of the miracle year went viral on Twitter. It has since been read by tens of thousands of people and attracted attention from Jeff Bezos, Paul Graham and Marc Andreessen among others. He has also been the recipient of the Emergent Ventures grant.
This time Nityesh led the interview. He is a previous Beginner Maps guest who requested me to interview Dwarkesh. Both Dwarkesh and Nityesh hold degrees in Computer Science but are not professional programmers.
In this interview we talk about Why he is writing essays instead of coding, How to get high profile guests on a podcast, Going to university vs Learning on the Internet and more.
Why is he writing essays instead of coding?
Hey Dwarkesh, it’s so cool to talk to you this way. Like a lot of your other readers, I came to know about you after the tweet from Bezos. Congrats on that!
You said in one of your recent musings that you used to wonder: “I have a CS degree - why am I writing essays instead of coding?” So, I would like to ask you that question. Why?
It's more interesting. To clarify, I don't mean it's more fun - I actually enjoy coding more than writing most times. But reading and writing for a living is just so much more interesting than being a code monkey.
being a code monkey
That's exactly how I felt. Which is why I didn't pursue a career even though I enjoyed coding. I'm curious to learn about your tipping point. Can you tell me how you decided that you enjoy reading and writing so much that you are willing to skip a lucrative career as a programmer? I'm sure it wouldn't have been an easy decision.
I graduated a semester early, so I felt like I could give myself at least a few months to mess around with The Lunar Society. If it didn't work out, I could always become a programmer. Honestly wasn't too difficult a decision since I had a decent backup option.
What does does a typical day/week look like for you?
I read for about an hour in the morning, then I write + edit for 3-4. Then I go to the gym. I come back and do a few more hours of reading + dealing with miscellaneous tasks.
Going to university vs. Learning on the Internet
In your podcast with Tyler Cowen, you asked him about the benefits of paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend university vs learning stuff online for free. So I’m curious about your stance. You went to UT Austin for a CS degree but it seems like a lot, if not most, of your knowledge comes from self-learning online. Do you think your university education was worth it? What were the best 20% of your university experience?
It's true that most of what I know about non-CS topics, I taught myself. But that's also partly because I didn't study those topics in college. And I'm glad I didn't! Otherwise, they would have seemed much more boring than they actually are.
As for my CS knowledge, I actually think most of that did come from university. The degree was worth it because at 17, I would have no idea how to teach myself CS, nor would I have met many of my close friends.
But 21 year old me is better at teaching myself stuff and meeting people over the internet, so it wouldn't make sense for me to pursue graduate education.
Agree - it is incredibly difficult for a 17 y/o to navigate the career path.
But 21 year old me is better at teaching myself stuff and meeting people over the internet
I would like to get into the specifics here. If you had a chance to meet the 17 y/o you, what would you teach him about being an autodidact and using the internet that he doesn't already know?
I think the main thing to learn is just the confidence that you can learn. In the beginning, you'll feel like you're banging your head against the wall and getting nowhere. But this is when the scaffolding is being painstakingly assembled in your brain. Paul Graham has a great essay about this called Being A Noob.
Being a Noob
January 2020 When I was young, I thought old people had everything figured out. Now that I'm old, I know this isn't true. I constantly feel like a noob. It seems like I'm always talking to some startup working in a new field I know nothing about, or reading a book about a topic I don't understand well enough, or visiting some new country where I don't know how things work.
How did he get big name guests on The Lunar Society podcast?
How did you get Bryan Caplan, Professor at George Mason and a NYT best selling author as the first guest on Lunar Society podcast?
Cold email! Never underestimate the value of a well-written and well-researched cold email. You actually sent me a good pitch for this interview, and you showed me some enticing questions. Others should learn to do the same!
Wow, I am always surprised to see the power of a cold email in action! Will you be able to share the first email that you sent to Bryan Caplan? I think the 20 y/o readers would find it very inspiring. And thank you for your kind words!🙂
Not ready to share the email but I just dug it up in my Gmail archive. Basically, I email him saying that I really loved his books. He says thank you. I'm incredibly surprised that he replied. So I ask him a question about one of his books. He answers. At that point I had been thinking about starting a podcast, so I ask him if I can interview him. He says yes. I actually don't think I even had a name for the podcast at this point.
Why did he start the Lunar Society podcast?
Talking about Lunar Society, why did you start the Lunar Society podcast and blog? What problem do you intend to solve with it?
I intended to solve the problem that I was bored because COVID hit and my classes went online. Honestly there wasn't that much thought to it.
Hahha, maybe this is your annus mirabilis.😉
Newton’s annus mirabilis came to him between 1665 and 1666, when Cambridge responded to the Bubonic plague by sending its students home to quarantine.
Beyond going from 800 to 15k+ followers on Twitter (🎉), how has the recent attention from Jeff Bezos and Paul Graham among others changed the trajectory of Lunar Society?
The recent attention has raised my ambitions a lot. Now I don't want to just write any blog post. If I'm going to spend days or weeks thinking about a subject, and if Jeff Bezos might read what I say, I should deal with really interesting or important questions. It's funny - that should have been my attitude all along, but the recent traction has made it much more salient.
Resources for people who want to start a blog or a podcast
Who are the bloggers and podcasters that you take inspiration from?
What advice would you give about asking good questions to someone starting with podcasting?
- Ask questions whose answers you are genuinely interested in learning. Which means, don’t ask questions to which you already know the answer. For example, if you know why they think X, don’t ask them why they think X. Ask instead, what does your reason for thinking X imply about Y?
- Don’t ask questions which could be asked of any other person: What is your book about? Why did you write it? What challenges does your company face? etc. I like this by Tyler Cowen—
- If the guest starts repeating something he said in the book/blog post or in another interview, that’s a failure.
With any possible question, ask yourself in advance: can the person being asked the question respond too easily in a vague and not very useful way? “Why did you write a book about Napoleon? Well, let me tell you, French history always fascinated me.” If that is the kind of slop you might get back in response, try making the question more pointed or more specific.
Awesome! Thank you for your time Dwarkesh. It was super cool to have you here.😃
These are very practical tips that we’ll apply to our own interviews! Love what you’re doing Dwarkesh!! Thanks for joining us.😄❤
Thanks for having me man! My pleasure!