Book Review: “How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life” by Russ Roberts

“Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely.”

                                       —Adam Smith

Russ Roberts is an academic economist best known as the host of the EconTalk podcast, wherein he interviews people knowledgeable in public policy and economics. This book is his exploration of what Adam Smith had to say about living a good life. Roberts thinks it’s a shame that Smith is thought of as an economist before a moral philosopher, and seeks to remind readers through this book of the power of Smith’s moral wisdom. He focuses primarily on Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments rather than the work Smith is best known for, The Wealth of Nations, which unfortunately is commonly used to legitimize the power of venal self-interest.

How Adam Smith Could Change Your Life explores the idea of acting like you have someone, some ‘indifferent spectator’, judging your actions. Something like a conscience. The importance of introspection is also examined, along with some reasons why self-knowledge is so difficult, the corrosive pitfalls of seeking out fame, how empathy with someone is easier in good times than in bad, and how tempting but dangerous it is to make exceptions in some circumstances. “Smith admits there can be some extenuating circumstances that make the rules of justice more flexible. But he suggests that such an approach to justice is a very slippery slope. He urges us to follow the rules of justice with complete steadfastness; the more we do so, the more commendable and dependable we are.

I also enjoyed P.J. O’Rourke’s On The Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World. It is less insightful, but hilarious. My favorite line was, “Money has no intrinsic value. Any baby who’s eaten a nickel could tell you so.”

Further Links:

School of Life’s video profile on Adam Smith, along with his write-up in The Philosopher’s Mail.
Part 1 of a 6 part series of interviews with Dan Klein that inspired the book.
What the professionals had to say: The Wall Street Journal book review.
Buy from Amazon: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.

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Documentary: “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”—a fantastic documentary, via Farnam Street. To add to this discussion I would also consider the New Yorker’s profile on Aaron Schwartz, ‘Requiem for a Dream’.

“This is the story of a boy my age who tried to make his expectations of the world become reality. Instead, he was crushed by the very system he sought to change. I don’t necessarily agree with his views but his story is as incredible as it is inspiring. “HE WAS NOT a saint. He could be as petty as anyone. But the thing that makes a good life isn’t constantly being saintly—it’s just continuing to do shit. We spend so much time waiting to start to live. He always went big—he never looked for permission to go big. He assumed that he could talk to anyone he wanted, and he was right, and it wasn’t because he was super-special-genius-boy, it was because he tried.” “WE WERE TALKING about the money and about how much debt it was reasonable for him to go into around the case. I was saying, ‘You can get a half-million salary a year as a C.T.O. for some tech company.’ And he said, ‘I would rather sleep on friends’ couches for the rest of my life than take a job I don’t want.'”

I’ve also taken a few book recommendations from his annual Review of Books, most notably Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the top 10 most admired in U.S. Why?

From Reuters, a reminder that pragmatic decisiveness is an important characteristic of leadership:

“So how did Putin and Netanyahu wind up with enough admirers in this country to place them on the list? The simple answer may be that they exude certitude in an age that reveres it, and views it as strength.

This is the opposite of what we are taught in sophisticated college humanities courses — that certainty is the dominion of fools and knaves. There is no absolute truth, scholars insist, and even if there were, no one could claim a monopoly on it. We are taught to believe in ambiguity, accommodation and a certain kind of intellectual modesty — that just because we may feel something doesn’t make it true or right. This sort of modesty is regularly cited as one hallmark of great thinkers and great people. They understand their limitations.

But in the real world, people do not necessarily find intellectual modesty admirable. What the hurly-burly of life seems to teach is that the one thing we can admire is a person’s sense of certitude — honoring deep conviction and an unwillingness to countenance doubt.”

Podcast Recommendations

My new job came with a long commute and so lately I’ve had an abundance of time to spend listening to podcasts. What follows are seven of my favorites along with the five episodes I’ve found most engaging. Enjoy:

The Joe Rogan Experience Comedian Joe Rogan is a master conversationalist. He interviews a wide swath of people, from famous entertainers and scientists to professional athletes and snake oil charlatans.

Here’s The Thing Alec Baldwin needs no introduction. His podcast shines because he’s a celebrity interviewing celebrities so to they open up to him in a way they are hesitant to around journalists.

 WTF with Marc Maron Marc Maron is a nutjob, and his neurotic rants about his three cats can get irritating, but he isn’t scared to get into deep emotional issues with his guests.

The Nerdist I was a latecomer to this podcast but a coworker convinced me I’ve been missing out. Chris Hardwick and his crew pretend they’re nerds but I don’t really buy it. Their interviews are thoughtful and everyone involved is articulate and well-rounded.

Econtalk Econtalk is hosted by Russ Roberts, a noted economist and author. His guests are the most intellectual and wonky of the podcasts I’m recommending, but Russ always manages to get enlightening conversations out of them.

The James Altucher Show James Altucher interviews on independent-minded artists and businesspeople and does a good job at finding out how they operate. WARNING: the intro theme is atrocious and he does NOT have a radio-friendly voice.

The Dr. Drew Podcast Dr. Drew from Loveline has a podcast of his own dedicated to interviewing other medical professionals and notable people he finds interesting. He is a great interviewer and conversationalist with 30 years experience in traditional radio. The man is superhuman but the series of shows concerning his recent recovery from prostate cancer is humanizing (SEE: episodes 138-141).

  • Ryan Holiday episodes #142 and 146
  • Dr. Joseph Ventura episode #156
  • Paul Mecurio episode #152
  • Cary Presant episode #60
  • Mike Dawson episode #118

 The Tim Ferris Show Tim Ferris is an amateur at podcasting and his personality can be a bit grating because he talks too much and he reuses a lot of questions from guest to guest, but the people he talks to are so interesting that his shortcomings as a host are easy to overlook.

Long form interviews are the anecdote to a tedious commute. Just be sure to fast forward past the scammy start-up advertising that makes these shows financially viable. Also check out Hardcore History and The Adam and Dr. Drew Show, both of which are consistently entertaining.  

David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ Transformed Into Picture Book for Kids.

Check ignition and may God’s love be with you

From Wired:

“The David Bowie song “Space Oddity” probably shouldn’t have been made into a children’s book: The haunting 1969 track about an astronaut who loses contact with Earth to float around the universe would probably give most kids nightmares.

That didn’t stop illustrator Andrew Kolb from turning the space-rock song into an illustrated book. As seen in the gallery above, the artist lays down Bowie’s hit about a spaceman in a ‘tin can’ line by line.”

Andrew Kolb’s impressive portfolio can be seen HERE.

Bad Business Ideas

I always get a kick out of terrible business ideas. I came across this anecdote and was surprised that bad ideas for businesses long preceded the App Store. This one is from late-1940s Hollywood:

“Every half mile there seemed to be another car pulled over on a side street, the driver on the boulevard holding a sign that read, MAP OF STAR HOMES. For five bucks you could have the addresses so you could drive to the homes of your favorite TV and movie stars. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. What, I wondered, about all the fans who couldn’t afford a trip to Hollywood and must settle for writing to their favorite stars? Wouldn’t they relish the opportunity to reach them directly at home? A little research and we learned that three hundred dollars would buy an inch-and-a-half classified ad in Sunday newspapers around the country whose combined circulation would reach more than 25 million readers. We were off and running. Our ad offered six addresses—”you name the stars”—for one dollar.

A Master Clark Lee of Bowling Green, Ohio, was our one and only respondent. In the westerns of the day, the lead always had a Mexican sidekick, whose girlfriend was usually played by the actress Estrellita Rodriguez. Master Lee’s request was for her address only, and he was happy to pay the full dollar for it.”

-From the autobiography of Norman Lear, Even This I Get to Experience, the creator of beloved sitcoms like All In The Family and The Jeffersons who in his 92 years has been everything from a World War II bomber to comedy writer. His fully realized life is a joy to read about.

“Happiness is the exercise of vital powers,
along lines of excellence, in a life
affording them scope.”

“The Trauma of Everyday Life” by Mark Epstein, MD


“Trauma is an indivisible part of human existence. It takes many forms but spares no one.”

The Trauma of Everyday Life is about the parallels between ancient Buddhism and modern day psychotherapy. Buddhism and psychotherapy are remarkably similar in their approach to soothing the pain of existence, this book is an exploration of their methods and dogma. Even though one is a religion and the other strives to be modern and secular, both attempt to soothe the anxieties of life by examining personal problems and repeated behaviors. They both start by acknowledging that trauma is inevitable and attempt to figure out what to deal with it.

Simply acknowledging that trauma is unavoidable is therapeutic. Throughout this book, Mark Epstein talks about the life and teachings of Buddha and his experience as a therapist, helping others through the trauma of existence.

In line with this book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny summarizes the importance of Buddhism this way: “In the spiritual realm, India gave us Buddhism, the first major religion to stress tolerance and nonviolence, the only major religion to spread far and wide without conquest, and arguably the major religion whose founding doctrines (unembellished by later additions) most readily survive the modifying force of modern science.”

Further Links:

School of Life video summary of the Buddha and his principals.
BBC documentary on Freud and the origins of psychotherapy and mass psychology: The Century of the Self.
Buy from Amazon: The Trauma of Everyday Life

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