#28: Steven Pinker on Career Uncertainty
This is Cognitive Revolution, my show about the personal side of the intellectual journey. Each week, I interview an eminent scientist, writer, or academic about the experiences that shaped their ideas. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
"Uncertainty" would not exactly be the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Steven Pinker's current position in the world. But that wasn't always the case. There was actually a stretch in Steve's early career in which he found himself in the throws of uncertainty and anxiety. In this conversation, we dig into a lot of Steve's early career experiences, as well as his process as a writer. One of the things that stood out to me in what Steve said was that from early on he had an overarching sense that he wanted to study human nature. But it wasn't always precisely clear to him what that entailed -- or at least there were a number of paths he could've taken to get there. Obviously, he did quite a bit right throughout the process, but it was nonetheless fascinating to see the bets he made that paid off and how he balanced his options while equivocating about what the right move was. In addition to the nature of humans and their societies, we also talked about important subjects like the content of Steve's closet (including his notable collection of cowboy boots) and his advice for sourcing potential mates through literary and philosophical correspondence.
Steve's official title is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. You will recognize him from his books -- including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Sense of Style, and Enlightenment Now -- as well as whatever mean thing Nassim Taleb has most recently tweeted about him. Be sure to keep an eye out for his forthcoming book on the tools of rationality.
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