Things to not waste time on

We drown in content. Authors, thinkers, and officials are available on podcasts or YouTube commenting on almost any issue. Some of these conversations are interesting, many are not. Powerful people with reputations at stake, both theirs and their organization’s, are incentivized to be guarded. This is sensible policy when off-the-cuff comments can move markets, but doesn’t make it any more interesting. So, how to find content worth listening to?

Avoid interviews with Very Important People: People like the IMF’s Chief Economist or the CEO of Volkswagen have little to say not already in print elsewhere. They are usually there to discuss one of three things: a report or press release; events which are the subject of an ongoing report or press release; events which will soon be the subject of reports or press releases. Very Important People will repeat the party line with clarity, maybe even a little humour, but waffle the rest. Should the conversation require their opinions on the unknown or controversial – presumably why you are listening – they will squirt out clouds of PR speak.

Take this example from an interview with former Director of the CIA John O. Brennan. When asked his opinion on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, following the release of videos taken by US Navy pilots documenting as-yet-unexplained flying lights and objects, he said:

What that might be is subject to a lot of different views. But I think some of the phenomenon we are seeing continues to be unexplained and might in fact be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

Avoid public intellectuals at well-marketed events. “An evening with…” or “In conversation with…” are warnings you are paying to be the clap track of a YouTube video. These events usually follow the release of a new book or public controversy. In the latter case, consider a podcast (or the book’s introduction), in the former, the opinion section of a newspaper. When it comes to the content itself, nuance and complexity will probably be left out, while you can find the high-level summary more quickly and cheaply elsewhere. I make exceptions for debates or dull-looking events like memorial lectures or technical presentations; you usually get more candour and a better version of their ideas.

A case can be made for seeing your ticket as a financial gift for an author you like; I suspect it is more lucrative than book royalties. It can also be exciting to see an idol up close, in which case the location is also usually beautiful, even if the drinks are overpriced.


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