Measuring Things with Dan Goldstein

INJ 40 | Decision-Making


Dan Goldstein is an academic who has been a professor at London Business School and a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute, Columbia University, Yahoo Research, and Microsoft Research. He did a TED talk on decision-making that got a couple million views. Before that, he spent a decade performing, writing, directing, and producing comedy shows around the world. He nearly left academia for show business on a couple occasions.

Listen to Episode #40 here

Measuring Things with Dan Goldstein

Our guest is Dan Goldstein. He is an academic who has been a professor at London Business School and a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute, Columbia University, Yahoo Research, and Microsoft Research. Before that, he spent a decade performing, writing, directing and producing comedy shows around the world. A couple of times, he nearly left academia for show business. Welcome, Dan.

Thanks, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Dan’s an old friend. I’m eager to talk to him. Dan, if you weren’t working as a research scientist and weren’t able to perform, write, direct and produce comedy shows, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be a writer. I’d probably be looking for work as a TV writer because a lot of people that I used to perform with and direct and so on found work in show business writing for TV.

I’m not letting you write comedy shows, so what type of shows are you writing than on TV? You can’t do comedy. You can’t be a research scientist. What would you be doing?

If I were twelve, I’d be a video game tester.

It’s the new firefighter.

When you’re a little bit older, I want to be a graphic designer. If you stay home during the day and watch TV, they have these commercials like, “Be a graphic designer. Get on the computer. At the institute here’s the number,” because there are some jobs where everyone imagines like, “That’s for me.” At least a huge swath of the population imagines like, “That’s for me. That’d be so much fun. I’m creative. I know what’s good and what’s bad. I know how to use a computer. I would like to do that.”

Being a designer is a good job if you’re good at it.

We should do the dark side of design. It probably has all these things that you don’t imagine like hours of tedious work, coloring things, huge deadlines, little sleep and so on.

There’s this guy named Mike Monteiro. He’s Bay Area-based Mule Design. He’s a big mouth guy. I sent him an email once saying, “I’ve seen some of your videos and I like what you’re saying. If I’m ever in San Francisco, I’d like to interview you for the podcast.” He has a semi-famous design video called Fuck You, Pay Me. It’s about how designers are often too nice, they don’t do a good job getting good contracts and being friends with their clients. He goes into depth about some of those challenges. He talks about the solutions but the whole way it’s about all the challenges that you’re facing trying to be a business person and then also a creative mind.

I saw a cartoon on Reddit of a teacher telling the students like, “What do you pay doctors with?” and the students are like, “Money.” Teacher’s like, “What do you pay lawyers with?” and the students are like, “Money.” The teacher goes, “What do you pay artists with?” and the students go, “Exposure.”

That’s a lot of his message in this way about don’t work for free and all of these things.

If I were not a research scientist or somehow doing show business, I’d probably be a computer programmer because it is Pavlovian. You had these little problems and you solve them and then you feel rewarded. It’s a little suspenseful because at the end of the day you can leave things where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out the next day and then pick it up. You can forget about it when you’re not working on it. That would be a good job for me.

It would too in part because being a programmer is a lot like being an artist in ways.

You certainly get better through practice and you become a master at the end of your solving problems.

It can be pleasurable in a flow state way.

No one’s over your shoulder telling you like, “Move this up.” Within the constraints of what the program has to do, you have a lot of latitude in how you design the program, what you call things and how you shape it. You are building something.

There might be a difference then between design and programming. I was going to work towards his ideas. One of the things he talks about is you often get paid as a designer for an hour worth of work, although it took you 21 hours to do the project. The client wants to pay you for the hour, but you needed twenty hours of stumbling around, screwing up, going down this wrong path to hit that magical hour, which you don’t know when it’s going to come and how it’s going to arrive in that way. That probably doesn’t work for computer programming though. You build a lot more instead of having this moment of insight as a programmer. Is that correct?

I think so. Although the final rate you can demand does reflect the amount of experience you have behind you, which means that it’s not taking you ten hours. It’s taking you two hours because you’ve done so much in the past and you know what to do. You stumble less. I don’t know if that’s true in design, but you definitely stumble less in programming the better you are. If somebody is incredibly good, you can imagine them wanting $5,000 an hour if they can solve the problem for the same amount of money that somebody else could but would take a lot more time. There’s some joke about that too.

You mean a joke to be made or is there a real joke?

There’s a real joke. It’s not going to be funny, but it’s about the idea. It’s more like a business school anecdote where there’s some trouble at the nuclear power plants and it’s a crisis. They have to call this one guy in the middle of the night to come down and solve the problem. They have no other choice to pull this guy out of retirement. He comes in and he looks around the room. He picks up a screwdriver and turns one screw a quarter turn and says, “That will be $50,000.” They’re like, “$50,000? All you did was turn a screw,” and he’s like, “Yes, but I knew which one.”

You do some programming nowadays? It’s part of your job?

I work at Microsoft. I’m surrounded by very good programmers and it inspires me to become a better programmer myself. I delight in that part of doing scientific research like writing the program to analyze the research and to make graphs and things like that to get at the answers to the questions. Not just running the standard analysis but getting more insight into the data by writing my own code.

You measure things a lot and then you also are focused on the resulting data. This is in your professional life but is also in your personal life.

I had a whole coffee measuring thing where I was measuring the number of grams of coffee beans and water in different ratios and then I was changing. I’ve got a coffee maker where you can set the temperature at one Fahrenheit degrees. I was trying different temperatures of brewing the coffee. I realized it’s not just that, it’s the temperature which you drink the coffee. That’s what I found made the biggest difference. The temperature at which you drink it is key. If you drink it right out of the brewing machine or whatever process you use, it’s too hot. At that temperature, there are flavors that aren’t there. That only get there when you hit about 140, 145 degrees. That’s the real sweet spot for drinking a cup of coffee.

I didn’t know you had done this. I know you were doing a bunch of measuring around food. This might be an extension of that. How did you decide, “I’m going to start measuring coffee-related decisions?”

That might have come from within. It’s because I bought a good coffee machine and then sometimes a more professional device will have features you didn’t know you needed. Those features you didn’t know you needed caused you to make decisions you didn’t have to make before. A Mr. Coffee, you plug it in and it makes coffee, but this highly reviewed coffee maker from wherever it was I found lets you set the temperature. I was like, “I’ve got to make a decision.”

I might as well collect some data and figure out what the best decision is.

[bctt tweet=”The final rate you can demand reflects the amount of experience you have behind you.” username=””]

If you make somebody choose something like that and if that person is me, they’re going to go through a whole exercise and try to figure out the relationship.

How are you recording these things? Are you doing this systematically? Let’s use the coffee as an example. Do you have a notebook next to the coffee maker? Are you pulling out your computer and putting this in Excel?

I’m putting it in a spreadsheet.

The date?

I didn’t think that was relevant to record date. I’d take a bunch of glasses down from the shelf. They’ve all been sitting there on the shelf the same amount of time so they’re all the same temperature. Pouring the coffee in the cups, timing how long it is, taking the temperature inside the cups, drinking them and taking notes and so on. Go on about it as a scientist would.

Does your wife find this endearing or strange or infuriating?

She ignores it. She goes a long way. I did a blog post on my results of the coffee thing and my sister reposted it and said, “This is who my brother is. If you don’t understand Dan, that’s him.”

This is a personal bit of data collection and analysis. What are some other projects like that you’ve had? I don’t know if you still are measuring food but you were doing a lot of measuring food in terms of portion size and so on. If I remember correctly, this was a few years back. Do you have a professional scale?

I’ve got scales at home and at work. I’m not into the food anymore. I go through phases like that. I was listening to an interview with David Blaine. He’s also a human stunt. I don’t know if it was this video on breath holding or he’s talking about learning to hold his breath or some other video. He shows these before and after pictures of him quite heavy and totally ripped. He said, “I got from here to here by eating incredibly precisely measured amounts of food over a period of time. Your results might vary.” This triggered something in my head because if you read the news about consumption of food and probably people reading this are going to have opinions and get in the fight. You keep reading over and over again. It’s not the number of calories that you eat. It’s the quality of the calories. You can reduce calories and gain weight at the same time and there’s all this stuff. If you take a big step back and you pull it to the extremes, there are experiments where people haven’t eaten anything for literally a year or more.

People who weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds have gone on total starvation and lo and behold their weight does drop because they start burning that fat to live on. There have been situations in which people were put into work camps. We’ve seen pictures of them come out real thin. There does have to be some relationship between the amount of food you’re consuming and your weight. I wanted to see is this true for me? I started carefully measuring the number of calories that I was eating and clocking it down and so on. Letting what I was eating be random but I was measuring it and weighing myself on a Wi-Fi-enabled scale that would send my weight to the scale every single day and eating nothing beyond that. Lo and behold, it did hold for me too. Maybe I’m an outlier but there’s a strong relationship between the number of calories you put into yourself and your weight if you’re recording everything exactly.

It reminds me of a story of one of my quant psych professors in graduate school who switched from Coke to Diet Coke. He mathematically figured out how long it would take before he loses the nine pounds that he wanted to lose. Everything else was held pretty constant. He pretty much hit that number in the time period that he estimated. There’s a more complex relationship than that if you’re trying to optimize other things.

I’ve read credible articles that say when you give laboratory animals Diet Coke, they gain weight. Somehow the system compensates for the lack of calories in the Coke and puts it on in other places. When you do something like that, you have to be extremely careful that you’re holding everything else constant. That’s why there’s that non-effect between exercise and weight loss because it’s hard to keep the number of calories that you’re eating constantly as you start exercising more. It’s just your body is giving you cravings to eat more. If you do, then it’s also clear that if you exercise, you’re going to lose weight.

If you’re going to exercise, your body is going to change.

Another thing I was interested in was how your waist size changes when you lose weight. I was able to find something on Reddit. There’s a forum for weight loss and a lot of people are posting them before and after pictures and their before and after stats. I scraped that and got 100 examples of men and women before and after weight loss and what happened to their waistline. I found some study on this by this professor who did this with several hundred people and I was able to get the data from him and analyze it as well. I have a pretty good feeling for what that function looks like.

Is it non-linear?

It might be but I came up with a linear estimate on how many pounds do you need to take off an inch. It’s about seven or something like that.

There’s this belief and I may be misstating it, that stomach fat is the last fat to go. As you lose weight you lose it in all these other places, but the last place seems to be the stomach. I thought that’s where you were headed with that.

Maybe there is something there. At first blush it doesn’t sound plausible, but I did hear some study that said exercise doesn’t get you to lose weight but it does seem to reduce your waist diameter. You won’t weigh less but your pants will fit better if you exercise.

INJ 40 | Decision-Making
Decision making: Sometimes a more professional device will have features you didn’t know you needed, and those features cause you to make decisions you didn’t have to make before.


I’m pretty lucky in life that weight isn’t a particular problem for me. If I do and I want to, I can change my body pretty directly. It’s not a struggle. I just put in the time and the focus. I’ve always come to the realization if you want to lose weight if you want less fat, the eating stuff matters. If you’re putting junk in your body, you’re going to feel pretty terrible but the benefits of exercise are beyond weight. It’s about energy and it’s about ideas and it’s about pleasure. Having a body that is fit feels better than having a body that’s unfit.

Have you told your audience about the tripod before?

I have. Another tripod has never come up.

The tripod changed my life. That is a sticky idea. I don’t live it as I should.

Tell the audience about the tripod.

What is the tripod?

I have a lot of opinions about health and well-being that have been evolving a lot over the years, especially having studied well-being a lot and thought about it a lot. I’ve always believed that the base, the foundation for living a good life, almost no matter what path you pursue whether it’s an artistic path or an achievement path or a meaning path, is to have a strong healthy body. To me, there are three ways to do that. That is sleep, exercise, and eating. If I’m sleeping well, if I’m exercising often and I’m eating well, I can handle tremendous amounts of stress. I can push myself very hard if I need to. I can accomplish most things that I need to accomplish. It’s called the tripod because if you think about it as a stool if you remove one of those things the other two can’t make up for it. People who are sleep deprived will often up their calories to be able to try to compensate for it and you can only compensate for it perfectly in that way. Whenever I’m struggling, whenever I’m having a hard time, I go back to that. I double down on sleep, exercise and eating right.

That rubbed off on me. I saw somebody who is tracking her activity through an activity tracker. You can say what you want about those, but one thing she figured out was that when she went to conferences, she was sleeping a lot less. That made me aware of this problem. When I go to a conference, I take a nap or I intentionally sleep in. I do whatever I can to sleep a little more. I do whatever I can to eat a little bit less. I know that at a conference, there are all these things that make it easy to forget that you’re sleeping less and eating more.

You come back from a conference wiped or you’re worn out. It’s World Burpee Day. I recruited some people to do 100 burpees. That’s a tripod-y exercise that I may not have done at some other point in my life.

The fact you had that idea and that you carried it out, it means that your statement that you’re lucky is BS. You’re not lucky that you’ve been able to maintain your weight, you’re just an incredibly disciplined person who actively tries to manage the amount of sleep he gets, the amount of exercise he gets and the quality of what he’s eating. Most people most of the time are not thinking about that stuff.

To me, it’s a priority. I’ve doubled down on my health. I have an intermediate to-do list. These are things that I should be doing day-to-day. It’s not a specific today’s to-do list. The first thing on the list is health. I stole this from Tim Ferriss or someone it’s like, “Is health number one? If it is, then your decisions and behaviors should reflect that.” I don’t feel bad about that because I know I can do lots of other stuff better or more efficiently otherwise. Here’s the other one is I want to enjoy my life. I want to enjoy my day today. I like being energized and I’m funnier. I’m a better friend. I’m a better everything if I’ve taken care of my health.

Is there a flipside to that? Is there something to be said for not taking care of your health?

[bctt tweet=”As you start exercising more, your body is giving you cravings to eat more.” username=””]

That’s the Nassim Taleb argument.

It’s what you think when you think about Olympic athletes and people that you put on a pedestal and you watch their stories on TV. You think, “Did they miss something important about being a human being by spending all that time training and training and not doing things that other people are doing?” If you’re constantly thinking, “Health and maximizing health,” what are you giving up?

This is one thing I liked about you, Dan, because you’re good at thinking in opposites. It’s a comedy trait thinking the reversal. If someone’s saying, “X is good,” you go, “How might it not be good?” The answer is yes, you can miss out. You can miss out on fun, excitement. The issue is for me I regularly push it the other way. Part of the reason I doubled down on health is because I was traveling all over the world and being jet-lagged and carousing. Being on an adventure and having fun and not eating as many salads as I would like and eating more burgers and things like that. I don’t want my life to always be health number one. I love being in Dubai and it’s hard to make health number one when you’re in Dubai. I also wouldn’t want that always on the other side. If I spent my whole life doing that, I wouldn’t be as good a person as I am now. I wouldn’t be as happy living the life I want to be living. Happy is not exactly the right word.

There are also a few seconds of bliss that you feel when you’re eating chicken wings and drinking beer. It’s so like an amazing drug. I know it only lasts less than twenty minutes.

Even among the hardcore healthy people have built cheat days in as a result of that and one is because it allows them to feel rewarded. It’s not the constant have self-control. You’re not denying yourself all the time. There are some benefits to that. I have to tell you, I’ve never been a food pleasure guy. I’ve always viewed food as fuel. The worst I have it when it comes to chicken wings and beer and all of that stuff is when I’m stressed out, at the end of the day, I may lay into some comfort food. I may make some nachos. That’s fine, but the problem is when you do it on Monday night and then you do something similar on Tuesday night and you do something similar on Wednesday night. It’s a little bit you’re using food to cope and deal with stress. I can think of better ways to do that.

The whole cheat day thing, it’s harder to have these intermittent cheats as opposed to thinking categorically about something. What if you said, “I’m going to smoke one cigarette a week?” Wouldn’t that be a worse state than either smoking or never touching a cigarette again? Worse for your health would be would be smoking but there’s something about this categorically saying no to things that make it easier to maintain. I heard this rabbi said, “The surest way to get me to stop eating chocolate would be to start manufacturing it with pork.” I’m fully used to the idea of not eating pork. I categorically reject it. There wouldn’t be any cheat at all. It would be much easier for me to deal with. The fact that it doesn’t, make it something that it’s hard because sometimes I’m telling myself, “It’s okay.”

I don’t do cheat days so I couldn’t tell you personally about it. The thing about cheat days is that it’s within these parameters. It doesn’t risk billing over in a way that’s a problem for them. Enough about me. Thank you for the tripod thing. It’s a good reminder, especially when I’ve been using that approach in life needing to build a better foundation for myself.

There’s this idea about you, about me. The relationship is a third thing between us. That tripod, that idea, it’s in our relationship. I got it from you but it’s now part of my life. Something I think about and it’s in this third creature which is our relationship.

We’re at a conference for the audience. Normally, Dan and I usually do a walk at a conference, which fits the tripod thing nicely because usually at conferences, you sit and talk to people. The last thing about data, you measure steps because I remember you talking about how many fewer steps you walk when you’re at a conference. You collect a lot of data and you’re like a Brookstone company’s dream because you’re always buying gadgets and stuff to measure and so on. You also then take your insights and you write about them. You have a blog, Decision Science News, which you’ve been doing for how long? You were blogging before people knew what blogging was.

In 2003, when I was a post-doc at Columbia University I said, “I’m going to write a blog post every week until I get tenure.” I would have gotten tenure and I could go and get it somewhere right now.

You’re like, “Why do you want tenure, Dan?” “I need to stop blogging.”

I don’t know when I’m going to stop this blog. That’s one question in behavioral economics is if you have a habit for so long, does it become part of you? Does it stop being work? Is it like avoiding pork? I’ve been doing it so long, even if I had tenure maybe I’d still be doing it.

Do you ever miss a week?

Sometimes I won’t be able to do it in that week but then next week I will go and backfill it.

You may miss a deadline but you never miss a blog.

There is a post there every week going back to 2003.

Do you have a practice around this? Do you have a particular day of the week? When do you launch these? When they are usually posted?

There isn’t a process. There isn’t a time when I say, “This is blog time.” At some point during the week, it happens. It’s in my head and I don’t know what I’m going to write about. I don’t know when I’m going to do it but it happens. It has to get done.

You sit and write a blog post. You don’t have twenty partial blog posts in a folder somewhere that you’re fussing with and you’re like, “I’m going to work on the conference steps one this week.”

I have a lot of ones that are ideas that I’m going to go back and eventually finish off. Usually, I’d never go back to them. Usually, something more pressing comes along and I’d post the more pressing thing. I do have a lot of half started ones. There’s one that I want to finish up called Weigh Your Fish With A Ruler. I’ve got a fishing license for my daughter who likes fishing. It came with this magazine and it had this article called Weigh Your Fish With A Ruler. It lets you know for different species of fish at different lengths how much they’d weigh. I scraped the data out of that and plotted the function out of it. It’s similar to this stuff with waist size and pound lost and other research I’ve done on how bodies change when you change their weight and things like that. This is just for fish, but I’m always looking for shortcuts and heuristics and little regularities that are out there in the world. That if you know them, you can make educated guesses about things. You can know when someone is lying to you or when there’s a mistake if somebody says they caught such and such a fish and it was this heavy. You look at it you’re like, “That’s impossible.” That will be coming to Decision Science News sometime. It’s probably been in the unfinished section for a couple of years.

INJ 40 | Decision-Making
Decision making: There are a few seconds of bliss that you feel when you’re eating chicken wings and drinking beer.


If you want to launch them simultaneously, you know when to do it. You do a lot of writing because you’re writing your blog every week and then you write academic papers, conference proceedings and so on. You used to write comedy. What I like about you is your writing practice. I’m envious of it. You’re a good writer and you do volumes of writing and it’s usually pretty interesting stuff because it connects your skills with data. You’re like a dual threat. You have this strong data focus and then you’re good at communicating it. One of the things I notice that you do a lot is you communicate a lot with figures. You’re good about visually communicating more as you alluded to in terms of programming. You write a program to draw a graph for you, which is neat which I can’t do on. On Decision Science News or on your blog, you did a post. The first version was 1996. The last was 2009 about How To Be A Better Improviser. These are thoughts about How To Be A Better Improviser. I’ve looked at it a long time ago but I revisited because I have a lot of improvisers on the show. I’ve now started doing improv, reading about it.

That gets more traffic than anything on the website. Many people find that article and read it and write me Thank You letters and things like that. It’s popular.

It certainly has a big footprint if it’s been there for long. That helps. People are Googling how to be a better improviser. Improv tips, whatever and they find it.

It’s been translated into other languages, German and French by volunteers. Like I was saying about what’s the relationship between a fish’s length and its weight, I’m always trying to ask, “What are the regularities? What are the simple relationships that make something that’s complicated very simple?” I have a lot of experience doing improv. I learned improv at the University of Chicago, which is one of the birthplaces of American improv, if not the birthplace.

It’s ironic given the saying about the University of Chicago, where fun goes to die. The irony of that.

Mike Nichols, Ed Asner, Elaine May, writers for SNL and improvisers they all came out of the University of Chicago. I was totally into it and I took a lot of classes. In grad school, I did this project called Sitcom, which was if you had to teach a computer how to write a sitcom, what rules you would give it? What are the regularities that explain how a sitcom works under the hood? I had a show at the University of Chicago called Sitcom where I taught these regularities to improvisers and we used them to improvise sitcoms on the fly. It was great and it’s been produced over and over again around the world. When I was taking all these improv classes, I’m listening to these teachers. Seeing what works, seeing what doesn’t work. Sometimes hearing the same thing from multiple sources and I started asking myself like, “If you were to boil this down to a set of rules or principles that almost a computer could follow and be an okay improviser, what would those rules be?” That’s how I came up with this list of things on How To Be A Better Improviser. They were the common things that everybody was teaching and that I noticed seemed to work when people apply them. You don’t have to think, you just apply these things. You internalize these rules and apply them and things suddenly get better.

Especially if everybody’s doing them. That’s the thing about improv. If you’re the only person in your improv group using the rules, the group’s better off but the group’s not doing that well. If everybody is doing them, now you’re making scenes.

A good example of that would be this rule, “Go line for line,” which is one person says something, then it stops. The other person listens to that and builds their line off the last thing the other person says what they’ve been storing up to say next. It is in principle of yes and which you hear over and over. The way to get yes and to happen for you and your team is to literally stop talking after each sentence. Sentence, person one, sentence, person two. If only one person is doing that, it’s not going to work because the other person’s going to go off into some huge monologue and bore the audience. Once you replace yes and with like, “Just say one line each and build off the other person’s line,” they achieve the spirit of what the yes and rule is trying to get at. Once you get good at that, you can relax and forget about it.

The saying is, “Learn the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist.” Picasso is given credit for that, although I’m sure someone else came up with it. These things ring true for me as a novice. As someone who has enough improv skills to be dangerous. You have one that says, “Questions should give more than they take.” That’s a nice way to say, “Don’t ask questions,” which is making statements in a sense. What good improvisers do is they can even overcome those kinds of mistakes. I’m working on a talk and I’m using an improv scene to demonstrate different roles that you might have in your organization in the same way there are different roles that you might have in an improv scene. One of the founding members of UCB asks a guy a question, “Would you like to go first?” Which is a question that gives, but it’s still a question. I was amazed the guy says, “Yes, I would.” He immediately was pleased to go first, even though that was him taking the harder path in that scene. You have a situation that could have could have gone bad like, “Would you like to go first?” “No, I don’t want to go first. You should go first.” “No, I should go first.” That’s a terrible scene.

“Would you like to go first?” and the other person’s just on the spot, which is where the “Don’t ask questions” rule comes from.

[bctt tweet=”The foundation for living a good life is to have a strong healthy body.” username=””]

I feel when you ask the question in improv, you’re kicking the can.

You’re looking for the other person to come up with something. What I don’t like about the phrasing, “Don’t ask questions,” is because there are questions that give a lot of information. Do you say, “Are we going to have a shark again for dinner?” I introduced the idea that we had a shark yesterday for dinner so that’s something you can work with. That’s not a bad question because it’s got some specific information that tells us that we did that, that we know each other, that we were in the same place yesterday and so on.

I do enjoy improv. It’s my favorite form of comedy at present and it’s one that I feel I can do decently.

It’s interesting that the yes thing that probably gave you delight and gave the audience delight. It is a big rule in improv not to say no but to say yes. I don’t understand that. That’s atomic for me but I know that it makes people happy. I know that it works. I know that it causes things to go somewhere in scenes but I don’t understand why. Every time you go, “Yes, I would,” people love it. Maybe it’s because they see that you’re willing to take a chance.

It was positive. It’s affirming. It’s adventurous. It’s leaning in. I have a buddy. We’ve been talking about this idea of living at your edge in life. This notion of if you’re too far over your edge, you’re stressed. If you’re not close enough, you’re bored trying to live at your edge. To me, saying yes at that moment is at your edge. I can’t help but think this is that your former semisecret life as a comedy performer, writer, producer and so on that you’ve internalized some of these improvisational rules and that you use them more broadly in your life. Let me make a case for this and then you could tell me I’m either brilliant or I’ve never thought of this and maybe and/or no way. You were saying, “I could have tenure if I wanted it,” thing which I completely agree. Any university would be lucky to have you, but you don’t. You’re a little bit of a strange case in academia because you could be at a top, an elite school and yet you’ve been a little bit nomadic. You had a professor job then you did this whole thing at Max Planck Institute. You moved into industry working for these big tech companies. Is some of that from your improvisational background where you’re willing to strike out in a different less scripted way?

I haven’t thought of that. I predicted one of his answers. What do you think?

Am I overly applying this?

I do like that quote like, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid,” which is attributed to Goethe. If there’s something that scares you the most, you can address that fear by taking it head-on. If you’re terrified of, “What would happen to you if you didn’t get tenure?” one way to deal with that is double down and say, “I’m going to leave academia and maybe come back or maybe not.” It’s like putting yourself to the edge if you’re putting yourself in a situation where you think you can’t coast. You’re pre-committing yourself to striving more and to trying harder. There’s a nice quote from Herbert Simon who is a psychologist and economist and a Nobel Laureate in Economics. He was at Carnegie Mellon University, which didn’t have a great reputation at the time. As being this genius he was, he could have gone anywhere. He was constantly getting offers from Harvard and Caltech and all these places. He has a phrase in his biography where he says, “I always stayed at what was considered a second-tier school because I thought I won’t coast here. I won’t rest here. I’ll always be trying to prove myself and always be working a little bit harder.” It was a commitment device to make himself try a bit harder. I noticed that in my own self too coming out of college and applying to grad school and stuff like that. I was always working harder when I thought the future is not assured for me and enjoying life more too.

I’ve known you for a long time so it’s been fun seeing you. I knew of you before I knew you thing. I feel we got to know each other in a hot tub at a conference a long time ago in Los Angeles.

It’s funny I don’t remember where we met.

I forced my friendship on you. I don’t know if you know that. You didn’t know it at the time. I was like, “That guy’s going to be my friend,” and here we are. You’re very much a hacker. What an interesting hack for a success which is to take a non-obvious path to break the rules. The thing about academia is I think of it as train travel. You’re on a train and then here’s the next stop and then here’s the next stop. If you mix hard work, talent and luck together they don’t kick you off the train before you get to the stops that you want to be at. You get off the train. You’ve just gotten off the train a couple of times and it’s worked out nicely. There are other ways to travel and live a good life. Mixing things up is good for your success clearly.

To put yourself at a disadvantage works for me. I don’t know if that’s generalizable advice for everyone. If you notice that works for you, then it’s worth trying.

You’re like Larry Bird who decides, “I’m bored. I’m going to play with my left hand in the next game.” He did that once. He did it to trash talk or trash behave. He said, “I’m going to play left-handed in the next game and beat this team.” He went out and played left-handed and then hit the game winner in the game. They call him Larry Legend for a reason. That’s legendary.

Let’s talk about academia. I don’t know how many of your readers are in academia. I was on a panel yesterday with people who got PhDs but weren’t in academia. One thing that came up is when people who are in academia and have always been in it, they can’t see anything outside of it. Maybe because I had left once and gone into a startup and then gotten back in, I do realize that there are all kinds of people doing all kinds of things all over the place. Once you’re in there, from the moment you start working with an adviser in graduate school, everything is like, “You will become a professor, you will get tenure or you will be a total failure.”

That’s why I used the train track analogy rather than you’re in a plane.

Every person that I talked to about leaving academia the first time they all said, “You’ll never get back in. I’ve seen people leave. You’ll never get back in.” They don’t have a lot of data and they don’t know why these people left. It’s not a valid conclusion. Just because you see people leave and not come back. It doesn’t mean that they tried to come back or it doesn’t mean that they left because they wanted to leave. A lot of people leave for other reasons and the fact they don’t come back doesn’t tell you anything about your chances of coming back.

These are the same people who would critique your correlational design and should be critiquing this correlational design. Most people leave academia don’t leave because they want to leave. Either someone says, “You’ve got to get out,” or they don’t like the work. They don’t like being an academic so they leave to do something else that’s going to be more prosperous for them. They never want to go back or then you leave and you start doing something that puts you at a disadvantage for coming back. In your case, none of those apply. You also happen to study stuff that’s super valuable both in the academy and outside. I’m going to hire you at Colorado if you would ever be willing to leave New York City.

Lazy people leave and not come back and so they think like, “I can’t come back.” In industry research labs where I’ve been for the past decade, I see people around me in my sample get hired by academia from industry research labs. I can name five people who I’ve seen to get professorships with tenure out of Yahoo and Microsoft and IBM and places like that. It’s overfitting to the sample that you know and not realizing that it goes both ways.

There are some caveats. The world that we live in is a world that is rich with positions. Going to business schools and engineering programs, the jobs generally are better and less competitive there than other places in academia. There’s less friction that allows that movement to happen. If you took the most talented people in the business and you say, “You’re not allowed to work in academia for a few years. Go make your way.” They’d be able to make their way, most of them. They’d also be able to transition back. Call it talent. Call it interest. A third variable that’s causing the existing correlation or lack of an existing one but we’re working in an opposite way currently.

As long as they’re publishing while they’re out they’re going to get back in. Would I give that as advice, leave academia you’ll get back in? I wouldn’t because I don’t think it’s not a secret.

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

If that’s your personality then maybe you should. For most people, if you’re trying to be safe then I would say don’t leave.

When I was in my fourth year in graduate school, I explored leaving academia. I thought it was a useful exercise because it’s important. When you study judgment in decision making as we do, it seems crazy that you wouldn’t think about your alternatives. I was walking the talk. At that time, it was a different era but I looked at decision analysis. I was in this mathematical psych program and I looked at decision analytic jobs and realized I wasn’t probably as good a fit as I would like for those kinds of jobs. They were hiring a lot of heavy math people for that work, which I don’t have those skills. It was a useful endeavor in terms of knowing that I wanted to continue on the train that I was on.

Now, I’m in this weird place because I’ve achieved enough success that I have the comforts of academia while also able to enjoy the challenge of it. I’m in that sweet spot. I’m at the edge still. I think about, “Would I leave? How would I leave? Might I leave early?” I definitely think of those things. “What would I do? What would it be like? Why would I do it?” In part because my train is now at the last stop that has any real meaning, at least in terms of checking boxes. I have some secret ideas that I can’t publicly say. Let me ask you a few things. Let’s do this a little bit more rapid fire. I was leading to this question. Are there important people you need for success? You have good skills. You have an orientation. Things that lead you to be more successful but are there certain people in the past, in the present that you feel are necessary aspects of that?

I benefit from people who are optimistic and believe that we can do something together as a group. When I’m left to my own devices, I’m the biggest unit of production that you’re going to have. I can do a blog post. I can write a book. I can give a talk. I can write a paper but I can’t see myself starting a company or doing something that’s much bigger than me alone. I’ve always benefited from people. I have a friend, John Bordeaux, that I produced all these comedy shows with. He was always there saying like, “This idea that you’re talking about over a beer, that could be a show. We could do this.” It’s the same thing in my research collaborations. I have tons of ideas but the only ones that turn into papers are usually because of some co-author who wants to move the ball forward just says, “Let’s take the next step.” To achieve bigger things, I need partners. I need drivers. I’m not somebody who thinks can do it. I’m not like Elon Musk.

I’ve been kicking around this idea. I call it group genius. Everybody wants to talk about the lone genius. You’ll be proud of me, Dan. I’ve been working on this thing about group genius and even people who seem like comedic geniuses, there are those other people like you’re describing. People think about Jerry Seinfeld but why do people think about Jerry Seinfeld? It’s because they think about Seinfeld, but that’s Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David together locked in a room thing. Chappelle’s Show, it’s called Chappelle’s Show. Chappelle’s Show doesn’t happen without Neal Brennan, without an amazing cast of actors and so on in this sense. You probably would have entered the data yourself. I had an RA do it for me. Look up the number of writers in the top 100 comedy movies on IMDB. What percentage of those do you think had one writer?


Yes, 25% had one writer, 40% had two writers and the remaining were three or more, with as many as six writers. That’s nice evidence for group genius.

I love this idea and it’s a great idea. It’s like workout buddies or something like that. An improv troupe is like that in the sense that, “Yes, I could go and rent a rehearsal space and improvise by myself once a week at 8:00 to 10:00 at night, but I’m not going to do it.” Even though there is such a thing as solo improvisation. Having the group be that thing that says, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to lead to a show and so on.” I’ve always been fascinated with standups. I see them as people who can get themselves to sit down and work on something and say like, “This can become a show. This can become a special and so on,” because they’re alone. I guess there are some exceptions, maybe Lily Tomlin but they don’t have that cheerleader there saying, “Let’s work on this.”

I agree and maybe I’m pushing this group genius idea too far but even standup comics benefit from these group effects. They’re twofold. One is the time they spent with other comics just chit-chatting about what happened on stage. People saying, “Have you thought about doing this?” There’s that informal help that comes along the way. Standups also benefit from the audience because standups are constantly testing and revising. To call even standup a lone process is a misnomer because they couldn’t do it without the audience. They have the most help in some ways because in a year that you spend as a comic prepping a special, you might have 10,000 data points, 10,000 people helping you hone that work.

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Would we be doing this podcast if there wasn’t an audience? We could just record our conversations so that we could listen to them many years from now. It makes me think that all these people in their bedrooms on YouTube making videos talking to the camera, they’re depending on the idea of viewers to do it. Unless I’m seriously mistaken and there are a lot of people recording stuff for their own self like a diary. I imagine that the audience is a motivating force.

It is for me. I joke that I have one audience for this podcast and that’s me. I do it for me. That’s an exaggeration because I try to do it well because I know I have an audience. I bought hundreds of dollars of podcast gear because I wanted a better experience for the audience and so on. The fact that they’re imaginary and I get little feedback from them still spurs potentially more successful experience. You did something that only very few of my guests do, which is ask me questions and get me talking about stuff. I usually talk but usually it’s unprompted by the guest. What was it you would want to have talked about that we didn’t get a chance to talk about?

We did hit the big points I wanted to talk about. We talked about academia versus comedy, deciding your career paths. We talked about some stuff I didn’t anticipate like the stuff on measurement and so on. If you think you have some dream job, what would you want to do? I’ve always felt tempted to go into comedy. I left my first academic position to move to New York to work for the startup, but the real reason was that I wanted to work in comedy. A few years before that, I turned down a post-doc because I wanted to move back to Chicago and do comedy. I’ve always had this nagging feeling like, “Should I have gone into comedies? Should I have been a writer?” Certainly, among the people I used to hang out with and so on and perform with, a lot of them did find work in that field. I can’t say that I’ve fully been as bold as I could be because I never did take that chance. I never did try my hand.

You wonder what could have happened. I hate to tell you this, Dan, but you would have been great.

I try to think realistically about it as realistically as I can. I try to do matchings.

I was about as good as that guy.

Who did I feel were my peers? Who’s the comparable set of people? I guess if I was in that set, I probably would have had a few TV writing jobs. At this point, at this age, there’s probably a one in three chances I’d be between jobs. I don’t know if I have that risk appetite.

It’s a more highly variant business. There are fewer big winners. There’s more hustling thing. You get your big break that can change your career.

It’s different than academia where you have a guarantee. Once you get tenure, you have this guaranteed check coming in until you retire. It’s guaranteed. In comedy, once your show is canceled, you don’t know if you’re going to work again or where you’re going to work again. I’m in the middle which people in academia see as frightening but it isn’t that frightening. This is where 99% of people are. I have a job that involves some skills. If my company closes down, I’ll probably be able to get another job with the same skills. For professors that are like, “That is terrifying. I cannot imagine working for a company.”

INJ 40 | Decision-Making
Decision making: As long as people are publishing while they’re out of the academia, they’re going to get back in.


Scientists are risk-averse, it’s crazy. What are you reading, watching or listening to that’s really good that it stands out to you?

I’ll be honest, nothing.

That’s a first.

I’ll tell you one of the people I most admire. There’s a guy named Hadley Wickham who is a programmer. He’s taken the programming language R and made it ten times better through a lot of his own work. He created ggplot. All the nice graphs that you see coming out on psychology blogs and psych papers are done with this programming library that he created. He works on tirelessly and he creates much more than those like a platform for writing codes, writing books and things like that. It’s cool to me because he was a statistician. He was a professor at Rice University. The academic system doesn’t reward this at all, like writing software.

At the same time, if you step back, few people have had as big an impact on science as he has. You go to any field. You go to any journal, you look at the graphs. They were created with his code. The data handling and most experimental science in many fields are done by this. I do find stuff like that inspiring, even if you’re one of these people that are like, “I’m only as big as a company of one. I’m only one person.” You can make a massive change in the world in this day and change because of electronic dissemination of things and code like that. I’ll condition that by saying now there are hundreds of contributors that work under him and with him. As a person, he inspires me. He singlehandedly changed how science appears to people.

For people who aren’t familiar with R, it’s a programming language that allows you to do statistical analyses and then also presentations like graphing, figures and so on. Is R’s origin an open-source thing?

There was a language called S, which was a commercial product. R was the open source version of S. Now, R has increased greatly in popularity and because of this guy, Hadley Wickham, even more so.

All our students are learning R. You have to learn it if you’re going to be a behavioral researcher. Dan, I’m so happy we could do this. This was fun.

Thank you.

Resources mentioned:

 About Dan Goldstein

INJ 40 | Decision-MakingDan Goldstein is an academic who has been a professor at London Business School and a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute, Columbia University, Yahoo Research, and Microsoft Research. He did a TED talk on decision making that got a couple million views. Before that, he spent a decade performing, writing, directing and producing comedy shows around the world. He nearly left academia for show business on a couple occasions.


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