How We Changed Our Minds in 2021 (Part Two)
Jordan Peterson on how to have real conversations. Aella on dating. Patrick Collison on genius. Plus: Niall Ferguson, Leandra Medine, Alana Newhouse and more.
As we approach the new year—a time of promises to change; of commitments to resolve something big or something small—we asked people we admire how they have changed their minds in the past year. We got so many good answers that we had to split them up over two days.
Yesterday, we ran our first installment, featuring Enes Kanter Freedom (on his name); Ayaan Hirsi Ali (on liberalism); Tim Urban (on religion); Balaji Srinivasan (on American anarchy); and more.
Also: we really want to hear from you! Tell us how you’ve changed your mind this past year in the comments.
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HOW TO HAVE REAL CONVERSATIONS
Over the last few years, I have had a number of discussions with famous atheists, Sam Harris foremost among them. We spoke together twice on his podcast, and also in Vancouver, Dublin, and London. Although these conversations were very well-attended—nearly 10,000 people attended the Dublin and London shows—I always felt that I had not conducted myself optimally. They had an argumentative quality that I did not regard as entirely positive.
I had already learned, years ago, that the sessions I conducted as a clinical psychologist were much more effective if I just listened and tried to clarify rather than ever attempt to lead or convince. It wasn’t up to me as a professional to decide what direction my clients should go, or not go. It was up to me to pay close attention and understand.
What I had been doing with Sam Harris—and in a number of other public conversations—was not what I had done as a psychologist. I was trying too hard to make my point. I was using instrumental tactics, trying to justify my own beliefs and to undermine the stance of my opponents, rather than being open to hearing them.
I realized my mistake, and when Sam and I spoke again in October 2021 all I did was ask him questions—and real questions, too (not those that only led in a direction that I wanted to go; not those that somehow made my point). I stopped trying to demonstrate to Sam and to potential listeners that I was right. Instead, I simply tried to understand his points of departure more clearly. We had the best conversation we ever had.
This November, on a trip to Oxford, I had a discussion with Richard Dawkins. We had stepped rather tentatively around each other in the email exchanges leading to our meeting, but they became increasingly good-humored. When we met, I tried to remember my clinical experience and my last discussion with Sam. I did my best not to be right or to win or to make my point. I asked him real questions. He did the same. Our conversation, which lasted several hours, was still too short, and left many issues unresolved, but it went very well.
What did I learn (again) this year? Don’t treat people as instrumental means to my predetermined end. This is particularly true of people with whom I may think I disagree. It’s highly probable that I don’t understand where they are coming from, what they mean, or anything about the particulars of our disagreement. If I listen, instead of winning, I learn. And that’s better than winning.
Jordan Peterson’s most recent book is “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.”
Choose your fighter, as the kids say.
For decades, a strong federal government was the preferred soldier for me, and for many people I knew. The reasons could be soaring and justice-seeking—my father valued the New Deal so deeply that he effectively forgave FDR his betrayal of Jews during the Holocaust—but were more often simply obvious. You couldn’t face nuclear war as an individual. You couldn’t even attempt to right the historical wrong of slavery and extend civil rights fairly across citizens on any level other than a national one.
When the Cold War ended, there was the promise—backed by the emergence of new technology we now refer to as the internet—that power was being returned to people. Individuals suddenly had access to seemingly unlimited knowledge, the ability to organize themselves outside the bounds of mediating institutions, the promise of global reach at their very own fingertips.
Then came 9/11, when everything switched back to the “trust us” model. Suddenly, we were thrust back into a war. And, though we didn’t see it at first, that new technology was turned against the individual; emails and phone calls were not personal communications but potential property of the federal government. Even the definition of surveillance expanded, as phones equipped with cameras meant that our lives could be watched not just by the state but by everyone around us.
To the extent that any of this was unclear, Covid pulled the curtain away, and showed us the reality of the landscape we had actually been living in—in which all of our intermediary institutions have been hollowed out or are dead, and how we’ve all been left bare and alone in front of this giant all-seeing eye of government and the monopoly corporations with which they’d become enmeshed. This was the year we learned that this interlocking blob could decide to shut down our schools, force children in pre-K to be masked all day and isolate others from necessary social interaction, regardless of the consequences to their mental or physical health; they will decide what we’re allowed to read; and what we must put in our bodies.
In the face of this seemingly omnipresent power, where can one find shelter?
This was the year I remembered which way the arrows point in a republic. Rights inhere in individuals, who in this country chose to grant some of their powers to the states; states then granted some of their power to the federal government. The problems of the modern surveillance state are new, but maybe the answer to them has been here all along.
So, while you’re trying to figure out how to set up a crypto wallet, you might also take note of what is happening one level up: In Georgia, the state school board voted to break with the National School Boards Association; Oklahoma’s governor is pitching a battle with the Pentagon over control of its national guard; and Florida’s credit rating just surpassed that of the federal government’s.
In ways the founding fathers did not foresee—or did they?—we seem to be facing something quite unexpected. A new era of the states is upon us.
Alana Newhouse is the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine.
Earlier this year, I built a “date-me” survey—a collection of 62 questions I thought would predict compatibility with me. Eventually, I had a spreadsheet of data from 5,000 respondents, sorted by their total score based on their answers to questions like: Are you polyamorous? (I can’t imagine telling my partner they’re not allowed to be intimate with others.) And: what’s your political orientation? (Libertarians are sexy.)
The highest scorer who lived near me was an acquaintance who I’d run into a few times in my social circles. We’d had no spark with each other at all; he’d had a neutral, mostly forgettable impact on me. But his score was compelling. So, I asked him out.
He proposed an ambitious first date: three days in a remote Airbnb. The beginning was incredibly awkward for me, as I tried to get to know this near-stranger I wasn’t attracted to. But as we got to talking—and talking and talking—I realized I had underestimated the power of proximity, time, and effort. By the end of our trip, we felt that magic spark. And over the span of seven months, it developed into an intense, full-blown attraction, something I absolutely never would have predicted.
We ended up not working out—we had very different ways of managing conflict—but the experience left me with a changed perspective on the dating market. I’d just had a great time and great sex with someone I’d previously had completely lackluster feelings about. If I could do this with him, who else might be an unexpected option?
I had always believed that the heart knows no logic. I’m excited to keep testing the hypothesis that it does.
TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
Last winter I was publicly shamed. My name had been in the press in the wake of a correction on an award-winning story that I’d produced and helped report for The New York Times. Some people, upset that the paper didn’t blame or punish me, started a campaign to have me fired.
Instead of inquiring why the paper stood by me and my work in light of the correction, “entitlement” and “male privilege” were positioned as the reasons I still had my job. And a collection of unflattering anecdotes from my 20s were presented as proof that I didn’t deserve it.
Ten years ago, when I first moved to New York City, I regularly attended monthly public radio meet-ups at Brooklyn bars and rooftops where I looked for love—and eventually earned myself a reputation as a flirt. Nine years ago, when I worked at WNYC, New York’s public radio station, I gave a colleague a back rub during a team meeting. Eight years ago, I poured a drink on a coworker’s head at a drunken bar party.
In 2014, a friend pulled me aside to tell me that these anecdotes were being passed around as rumors about me. I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed. I sought to make amends. I apologized to my team at work and to the people I’d learned I’d made uncomfortable. I wrote letters and emails asking for forgiveness. I went on walks with people I knew I had upset. Some of my apologies were accepted and others were not. The experience shook me, and I promised myself to grow from it—and to make sure it never happened again.
It didn’t. But on Twitter last year, these embarrassing things were inflated. I was called a “sexual predator” and a “serial harasser.” I was a “garbage person.” A “Bad Man.” A “danger” to my colleagues.
Someone searched through my old tweets and saw that I liked Ayaan Hirsi Ali. That was used as evidence that I was both an Islamophobe and a racist. That I liked a funny tweet from the journalist and podcaster Katie Herzog meant that I was a transphobe. Someone started a bizarre rumor that I didn’t think women were good at Pro Tools (editing software many podcast producers use). Memes were made of me and host of The Daily, Michael Barbaro, claiming that we were both morally bankrupt and that we should be fired.
Not only are these claims false, they are lies. I am none of these things (and for the record: Barbaro is a mensch).
I wanted to say something. I wanted to tweet that, actually, I learned Pro Tools from a woman. I wanted to explain that I was deeply sorry for what I actually did, and I understood if my behavior meant some people didn’t like me. But I am not a criminal. I am not a danger. I am not the person that the tweets claimed.
Instead, I said nothing. That was partly because The Times’ leadership told me that this sort of thing happened regularly and would pass quickly, but it was also because I believed my bedrock moral principles demanded that I stay silent. My devotion to grace required me to listen. Empathy compelled me to place myself in the shoes of the people tweeting: Most had never heard of me before this tweet storm began, and the most generous reading of their actions was that they felt they were seeking justice.
When my friends saw that I was saying nothing, they asked if they could defend me, and I told them not to. I thought any response would give oxygen to the lies. I now believe that I was wrong. Not because it’s the best PR strategy (it’s probably not), but because honesty in the face of lies is good both for you and for society.
Going into this new year, may we all stay gracious and grateful and remember to forgive those that trespass against us, but may we also find the strength to speak up for what is true, even when no one wants to hear it.
Andy Mills is a producer of Honestly.
I believe a lot in targeted mechanisms that quickly unlock opportunity—things like Stripe Atlas, Fast Grants, Emergent Ventures, Y Combinator, Pioneer. Over the past year, though, I’ve started to pay more attention to mechanisms that enrich and develop people on longer timescales. Gerty and Carl Cori mentored six Nobel prizewinners in their lab. How did that happen? Maybe they were just lucky in being early to a propitious field, but that seems unlikely to be enough to explain everything—they weren’t the only ones working on that stuff. It seems that the lab also taught an approach to problem solving that produced repeatable outperformance.
You find plenty of examples of this in other domains when you go hunting for them. Alan Kay attributes much of PARC’s success to the culture set by the early ARPA community. And between Levchin, Musk, Thiel, Sacks, and all the rest, there really seems to have been something in the water at early PayPal.
So, I’ve changed my mind on the relative marginal value of “talent radar”-style interventions. I still think they’re very valuable on an absolute scale, but now I find myself asking: how do we create cultures that act as long-term achievement trampolines? It's obviously a question that’s important in science itself, where there is renewed attention on how it should be organized. But it extends beyond that, too, and it’s part of what we think about in figuring out how Stripe can help grow the startup ecosystem around the world.
Patrick Collison is the CEO of Stripe.
At the beginning of this year, on January 10, just days after the then president had incited a mob of his supporters to march on the Capitol, I hypothesized that we might achieve herd immunity to Trumpism in 2021. “My earnest hope,” I wrote, “was that, having once been infected by the virus of antidemocratic politics, Americans have now acquired some resistance to it.” I thought that the coronavirus pandemic would be behind us by the end of the year, too.
I was wrong on both counts.
Not only has the shape-shifting virus found a way around our vaccines—I write six days after testing positive for Covid, despite three jabs of Pfizer—but a second wave of Trumpism also seems perfectly capable of reinfecting the body politic.
Trump remains amazingly popular among Republicans. Over 72% approve of his handling of the presidency. Asked about his personal attributes, 82% think him authentic and 73% honest and trustworthy. I kid you not. While only 53% are sure they want Trump to run for president again in 2024 (20% are against and the rest are not sure) Trump is miles ahead of the other potential nominees.
Yet another hurdle is Joe Biden’s incompetent administration. Liberals wringing their hands about the possibility of another close election in 2024 should consider the very real possibility of a landslide vote against the forever pandemic, high inflation, violent crime, border chaos, and wokeism in education.
Pandemics are often dualistic: there’s the biological contagion, then there’s the virus of the mind. A year ago, I thought we’d have achieved herd immunity to both by now.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle. His most recent book is “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.”
CANDACE MITTEL KAHN
I thought Chicago was a part of me.
The city saw me through wild and religious college years. Through a first love. Then bad love. And then my one love. It saw me through pregnancy. Then the birth of my baby. And, I hoped, a few more. The people were too nice and the wind was too cold, but the city made me and sustained me for over a decade.
Then, last winter, we left. As we shut the trunk, shoving one final box of things we almost forgot—a shower curtain, a water glass, a trash can—I prepared for the pain of leaving home. But when we drove those 12 hours south and the terrain slowly changed from cornfields to forest, the final stretch past Chattanooga when you can just feel the Smoky Mountains close, I felt an ease. I was going home.
Atlanta, my hometown, isn’t Chicago. We don’t see people outside our windows, or give a doorman leftover cookies on the way home from dinner. We don’t walk to coffee shops on Sunday morning for lattes and breakfast burritos. We barely walk anywhere. But here’s what we do do: we eat my mom’s challah every Shabbat, our daughter often the one who paints the final brush of egg yolk on before it bakes. We watch our daughter sprint to her grandparents for “sugar” and “squeezes” more times a week than I can keep track of. We installed a sprinkler system, and we don’t wear gloves in the winter. We find the best restaurants in shopping centers, and we go to places like Home Depot and Best Buy on Sundays. We have created new traditions and new routines, new normals and new comforts.
There’s a grammatically confusing line in Exodus, shortly after God commands the Israelites to construct the tabernacle. “You shall make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” Them, not it. After such detailed instructions on how and with what to build this magnificent sanctuary, God is not going to live there? Instead, God announces that He will dwell inside of us. This last year has proven to me that home doesn’t lie in any magnificent city or spirited neighborhood or trendy cafe or that stretch of park where your child took her first steps. Home is not fixed. It travels where you travel, wherever you may go.
Candace Mittel Kahn is a producer of Honestly.
ARAVAH AND YAIR TREISTER
Homeschoolers are nuts!
That was our only real opinion of homeschooling, something we never considered for our four (plus one on the way) kids. Homeschoolers are strange, anti-social and religious fanatics. Our only option for our family was traditional, brown-bag-lunch, carpool-lane, recess-style school.
Then Covid hit. We watched our nine-year-old son struggle with virtual classes. We realized that he didn’t learn as much as we thought during those long school days. We had a daughter starting kindergarten and did not want her first school experience to be masked or virtual. We felt that we had no choice but to unenroll them from their school and teach them ourselves.
Now, we are halfway through our second year of homeschooling and loving it. We’re able to individualize our children's education by going at their own pace and according to their interests. There is much less time wasted in the classroom from what we can tell from our friends’ kids. Our children’s relationship with one another is closer and deeper than before. One challenge was realizing that there are many curriculums and learning styles. A program that worked well for one child, might not for the other. You really have to be flexible and embrace change. A key to our success was finding like-minded homeschoolers in our community. They have provided a vibrant social life not just for the children, but also the parents.
Before, homeschooling was a non-option. Now, when it comes to our kids’ education, we can’t conceive of going back to the way things were.
Aravah Treister is a registered nurse. Yair Treister is a software engineer. They live in the greater Washington, D.C. region.
BIRKENSTOCKS, BROWN SUEDE AND MENTAL FREEDOM
LEANDRA MEDINE COHEN
Your reputation is not all you have, but your values are. Jewish values are very good values. Not all conventional beliefs are bad beliefs. Tradition is the mother of invention. Reinvention is more interesting. Having humility is a show of confidence. Sticking up for yourself is a show of self-respect. Building self-respect kind of hurts sometimes, but it never feels bad. Say sorry when you’ve done something wrong. Learn from your mistakes. Get up when the shiva ends. The pursuit of pleasure is noble. Their opinion of you is none of your business. Knee-high flat boots are great with wool shorts. Disagreement can be freeing. Ideological consistency suffocates me. A rough edge is my kind of finish. Brown suede matches black. Simple thoughts are not all dumb. My mother possesses Herculean strength. Criticizing fashion by calling it frivolous is some patriarchal bullshit. Kim Kardashian is a genius matriarch. Do what makes you feel good. Don’t underestimate fun. Drinking is not at all as fun as it used to be. Closed-toe Birkenstocks are comfortable and cool. Mental freedom and physical freedom are two different things. Mental freedom is hard to get; it requires knowing our lives are no one else’s fault. Personal power is nontransferable. Neither is luck. Use both to make both. Grow it. Share that. Have fun.
Leandra Medine Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller and writes a newsletter called The Cereal Aisle.