I don’t know whether I stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes, but I do know I get to interview them sometimes. And that may be the greatest thrill of this phase of my career. All of my guests I respect, but only a very few do I revere. And only a very few truly intimidate me with their intellect, output, and impact on the world.
This week’s Stay Tuned guest is such a person. Professor Daniel Kahneman is a universally-acknowledged giant in the field of psychology, which is to say he is a giant in a host of fields, not just because of the impact of his work on the science of economics, for which he won a Nobel prize. His research and writing have also revolutionized thinking in education, law, medicine, politics, and even professional sports. As Barack Obama said when he awarded Kahneman the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, “In a storied career in Israel and America, he basically invented the study of human decision-making.” That’s quite the invention.
In approaching the interview, my first befuddlement was how to address this eminent scholar. I knew from our mutual friend Adam Grant that Kahneman goes simply by “Danny,” and always has, and though it is the man’s preferred moniker, the nickname struck me as too informal. So I joked with him that perhaps I could call him “Sir Danny.” I am not usually so obsequious.
Something about the experience of talking with Kahneman reminded me of another giant whom I had the privilege to interview, a writer I’ve revered for decades: Robert Caro, celebrated biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. I went back to the Caro episode and chuckled when I re-read the transcript. I had forgotten this, but as with Kahneman, I was flummoxed about how to address the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, whose writing I have often found to approach perfection. I started the interview by noting that Caro goes by “Bob” and said I would try that, “but if I revert to Robert please forgive me and forgive the formality.”
My worshipfulness aside, it occurs to me that Danny and Bob are, in various ways, charming echoes of each other. Caro is 85, Kahneman is 87. They are both brilliant writers and scholars whose every upcoming work is an event. Both bring a legendary rigor to their experiments and their stories. Both know better than almost anyone that it is deep, deep research that animates understanding, whether about a former president or about human decision-making.
They have been awash in awards and acclaim for decades, and might be forgiven flashes of arrogance or self-indulgence. But you will not find a whiff of that with Danny and Bob. The unassuming nickname preference is just one sign of modesty. As Adam Grant said to me about Kahneman, “You will not meet a more humble scientist.” In our interview, Caro said that even after all this time, he never recognizes a sentence or paragraph that he has written as superb.
There’s something else, and it may be the most important thing. Well into their 80s, neither is within a mile of retirement. Each retains an urgency about his work, a drive to get the next chapter written, the next book published. Their minds are like pistons, so far undimmed by age. They remind me of the lyric from the Hamilton musical:
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?”
Being modest and smart men, they understand their mortality. In a remarkable concession about his latest book, Noise, Kahneman said this in an interview with the Financial Times: “You know, the book Noise is premature. If I had been 20 years earlier, that’s not what I would have done. Having identified the problem of noise I would have started the research programme on noise, and given talks about it, and thought about it and written articles about it. But I started this thing very late. I started it in my eighties and you just don’t have time. This, in a serious sense, is a book that came too early.”
I started it in my eighties and you just don’t have time.
Caro recently uttered a similar sentiment. Not long ago he published a short memoir, Working, and in it he writes, “[W]hy am I publishing this book now, why don’t I just include this material in the longer, full-length memoir I’m hoping to write? Why am I publishing these random recollections toward a memoir while I’m still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography, when I haven’t finished it, while I’m still—at the age of eighty-three—several years from finishing it?
The answer is, I’m afraid, quite obvious, and if I forget it for a few days, I am frequently reminded of it, by journalists who, in writing about me and my hopes of finishing, often express their doubts of that happening in a sarcastic phrase: ‘Do the math.’ Well, I can do that math. I am quite aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.”
Do the math.
One doesn’t want to do the math. It is heart-breaking to do the math. Giants don’t live forever, except in the hearts and minds of following generations. And Danny and Bob will live forever in that way.
I think a main reason I revere these men is not just for their past work, but their urgent drive to write more, research more, understand more. To give us more, age be damned. They have wealth and respect and awards, and they could easily take a rest. But there is no rest. They continue to give us the gift of non-retirement. And I don’t know what could be more worthy of reverence than that.