Over the past year, I’ve learned so many useful ideas and techniques from Alex Epstein’s The Human Flourishing Project podcast that I’ve had trouble keeping them all in mind, which makes it difficult to implement them consistently.1 So, I’m returning to each episode and noting key ideas to jog my memory—and, hopefully, yours. These overviews and interpretations necessarily are selective. For further clarification or deeper explanations, I recommend listening or relistening to corresponding episodes (linked below) and discussing them on the Project’s Facebook page.
Check back often, as I’ll continue adding to this list with the goal of catching up to and summarizing current episodes.
Happy flourishing—I hope this helps!
In the first episode of the podcast, Epstein talks about the problem that most bothers and fascinates him—the one that the Human Flourishing Project exists to solve: “Human beings lack reliable access to the knowledge we need to flourish.” He discusses it at length, explaining that trivializing a problem often leads to trivial attempts at solving it.
Epstein notes that the word “flourishing” comes from “flower” and refers to a flower that is at its best—in its state of highest possibility. For humans to be at our best, we must achieve both material success and good mental health.
Throughout history, humans largely have lacked both the resources and the knowledge needed to flourish. Although we have more of both today than at any other point in time, the real knowledge out there is “drowning in a sea of non-knowledge,” says Epstein. And, “whatever resources and capabilities we have, if we don’t have the right knowledge, we’re not going to be able to flourish.”
The goal of the Human Flourishing Project is to bring together experts and “students of life” to apply the best ideas from philosophy and other fields to create “knowledge systems” that can help us seek, validate, and integrate the knowledge we need to flourish.
Suggested assignment: (1) “List seven words that best capture what you think human flourishing consists of”; and (2) “name three areas of life (or at least one) where you most urgently want reliable access to the knowledge of how to flourish.” Post your answers in the Facebook group.
In episode 2, Epstein begins by describing the key qualities he aims to experience in the process of living—qualities that best capture what it means for him to flourish. These are:
- Altitude: “I’m able to see the events of my life as a purposeful whole.”
- Capability: “I experience [capability] as I’m good. And I’m getting better at everything I need to flourish.”
- Connection: “I think of [connection] as I’m able to share what I love about life with others.”
- Creativity: “I have a way of using my mind to sustain my life that fascinates me and motivates me.”
- Abundance: “I think of abundance as I have the material resources to make the most of my time on Earth.”
- Energy: “I have the physical and mental energy to do what I want, and to truly enjoy what I enjoy.”
- Joy: “I experience the positivity of my life in a visceral, motivating, reinforcing way.”
- Serenity: “There’s an undercurrent of relaxation and satisfaction in my life.”
- Authenticity: “Owning your nature and not trying to hide from it at any given time.”
- Desire: “I think that part of human flourishing is just that amazing experience of wanting things, of being motivated, of just saying, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’”
Epstein encourages listeners to track the qualities they want to experience in the process of living. He does so daily in a spreadsheet, giving himself a score between one and ten for each area. He also answers two questions: What’s one thing I learned today about flourishing? What will I do tomorrow to flourish more?
He recommends thinking about “any other variables [you] can track that are going to really strongly correlate to flourishing.” For instance, Epstein tracks “mental continuity, which basically means lack of interruption.” He finds that “when I have mental continuity, that’s very strongly correlated to altitude and serenity.”
Epstein then discusses what he considers to be the fundamental solution to the challenge of getting the knowledge we need to flourish: upgrading our knowledge systems. If we lack a system for processing knowledge claims, then merely seeking out more claims to knowledge won’t work. Epstein’s background is in philosophy, a field that addresses how we gain knowledge, but, he says, “contemporary philosophy, for the most part, studies these things in a very abstract way. And there’s not much focus at all on what we might call practical epistemology, or what I would call a practical knowledge acquisition system. How do I actually separate knowledge from non-knowledge?”
An ideal knowledge system has subsystems for seeking, validating, and integrating knowledge claims, and Epstein provides examples showing how each of these works.
In any given field, many (if not most) experts focus not on flourishing but on a narrow range of variables “that either have nothing to do with human flourishing, or that are only part of the picture.” For example, many nutritionists focus exclusively on fat loss without addressing how things like constant craving can undermine flourishing. Therefore, in order to focus attention on the right types of claims in any given field, Epstein asks himself, “What does human flourishing mean in this area? Or what are my standards for judging whether something promotes flourishing in this area?” He gives six standards he uses for judging whether something in the realm of nutrition promotes flourishing: “energy levels,” “lack of craving,” “lack of internal conflict,” “promotes longevity,” “good feel throughout the day (lightness),” and “pleasant taste.” By developing your own standards, you can more easily evaluate claims that conflict with or fail to address them.
Epstein treats all new claims as non-knowledge until proven otherwise. “There’s a really dangerous tendency,” he explains, “to think that we have to have an opinion on everything we hear—that we have to either agree with it, or disagree with it. But usually, because of the poor way things are explained . . . you just have no idea if it’s true or not.” Alternatively, you can think of these claims as being in limbo and remind yourself, “I’m not taking a position on this one way or another” without further investigation.
Epstein says that we should handle the claims of experts or supposed experts very carefully. We should “seek experts who give precise, causal explanations.” He describes his experience while searching for experts in the field of energy. “What I found over time is that the experts who . . . regarded it as their job to explain, [not] to dictate, were much better thinkers in general, and much more likely to be right, because they had nothing to hide.” Further, we should seek experts who “steel man, not straw man”—that is, experts who don’t attack misrepresentations or weakened versions of their opponents’ views but instead respond to the strongest possible versions of them.
“What I really want,” says Epstein, “is to be able to see any given true idea in its full context. Because if I understand how all the ideas fit together, then I’m going to be able to apply them. Whereas if I just have a million isolated ideas, I’m going to have no idea how to use them in practice.” To aid integration of any new idea worth considering, he asks himself, “How well does this integrate with everything else that I think I know?” He says that what we often find when we consider contradictory claims is that one or both are overgeneralized, that both are true in some more narrow way. When we figure out how, we can formulate the claims more precisely. “Ultimately, what we want is [for] all our knowledge about human flourishing to fit together in a way that we know what applies when to different kinds of situations.”
We all would be much better off with improved knowledge acquisition systems, but it would be even better if knowledge producers also used improved explanation systems. “And then there’s a third piece,” he says, “which we’ll also discuss soon, which is knowledge application systems.” So the three parts of the Human Flourishing Project are (1) knowledge acquisition systems, (2) knowledge explanation systems, and (3) knowledge application systems.
Suggested assignment: “What’s a process you find effective for separating real knowledge from non-knowledge?” Post your answer on The Human Flourishing Project Facebook page.
“When we’re in a state of growth and progress,” says Epstein, “we often don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we would like to.” It’s a real tragedy when those creating incredible, life-enhancing values don’t enjoy the process as much as they could, and among ambitious people, this is practically an epidemic. Fortunately, we can increase our enjoyment of growth and progress substantially by changing how we measure it.
Epstein relays how, as a young writer struggling to support himself, he felt like he was failing. However, a conversation with friend and neighbor Craig Biddle completely flipped his perspective.
I was telling him about my situation, and I said something to the effect of, “You know, I have to admit, I’ve been failing so far.” He looked at me very quizzically. To him, this was bizarre, and he said, “What are you talking about? . . . Do you realize how much progress you’re making by dedicating yourself full time to writing and how much that’s going to benefit you? . . . Do you understand how much people invest or go into debt to become a doctor? You’re investing in your future, and you’re making a huge amount of progress. And this is going to benefit you so much in the future. So you’re not failing at all. This is part of a success story.” And I remember hearing this, and it just instantly changed my experience. I was feeling like a failure, and then I thought, “Know what—he’s right.”
For Epstein, this experience illustrated that “our method of evaluating personal progress, including growth, can have a huge impact on our happiness.” He discusses business coach Dan Sullivan’s ideas on “the gap and the gain,” and concludes that “we need to stop measuring growth and progress by the negative distance to our ambitious future goals, and to start measuring the positive distance from our past capabilities and experiences.” And he relays Sullivan’s tool for doing so, which Sullivan calls “the positive focus.”
Positive Focus in Four Steps
- Write down an achievement.
- Write down “why this progress was important to your life and to your goals.”
- Write down “any strategic thoughts that you have about how you can make further progress in the future.”
- “Name the very first action or next action that you’re going to take to make the progress.”
Epstein recommends that once you get the idea, you use the following prompts:
- Reason why:
- Further progress:
- First action:
He says, “If you just do these four steps with three items a day, I think you’ll see that you’ll enjoy each day more, you’ll progress on these projects, and in general, your life will just have this momentum that it didn’t have before, or you’ll have more momentum.”
Suggested assignment: Share one positive focus with the Facebook group.
Bonus: Watch Dan Sullivan’s video How To Measure Success — Multiplier Mindset for his explanation of “the gap and the gain.”
Epstein discusses aspects of good explanation, beginning with his recent experience reading a book by an author who is widely regarded as an expert on intermittent fasting. “There’s one thing that people need to do that is super rare, . . . which is that whenever they’re making a claim to knowledge about a controversial topic, they need to address the plausible objections of their competitors.” When experts don’t do this, “it’s super easy for them to just get me caught up in their own internal logic.”
To be persuasive, a thinker must explain why those offering competing explanations are wrong. “This author, even though he’s supposed to be really good in terms of methodology, doesn’t address that at all,” says Epstein. “And so I’m left just with . . . these two little islands of claims to knowledge.”
Epstein returns to the concept of “steel-man” arguments, saying that specialists are far more persuasive when they address all of the relevant facts that seem to support competing claims. The Human Flourishing Project seeks better explanation systems because “we want the people who really have the knowledge to be as effective as possible.”
Epstein discusses his method for explanation, which he calls “context bridging.” A person’s context is the sum of things he knows, or thinks he knows. When we’re attempting to explain something to someone, we’re trying to bring them from their current context on a subject to somewhere closer to our own—from context A to context B. To make this happen, basically you can do only three things: add something to his context by introducing an idea, subtract something from his context by explaining why something he believes is false, or modify something in his context by showing that it’s “a half truth or a partial truth.”
People’s views differ not only in regard to this or that fact, but also in their standards for seeking, validating, and evaluating claims. So it can be hugely clarifying for those grappling with differing views to know at the outset what a given knowledge producer’s goals and standards are.
So for example, in the realm of nuclear power . . . often [people] think of nuclear power as unnatural, and a lot of their arguments amount not to that it’s really unsafe, but that it’s not natural. And so if somebody says from the outset, “Hey, I don’t believe in using the most natural form of power, I believe in using the form of power that’s best for human beings—that’s my goal,” then, as a consumer, I can say, “Oh, this is going to be a big differentiator. This person is in favor of human flourishing versus this person is in favor of the natural as the primary.”
Explicitly establishing one’s method at the outset is what Epstein calls “framing.” He says it’s incredibly powerful to state and follow a method and to point out when those with competing views employ bad methods, such as cherry-picking studies, attacking straw-man versions of opponents’ arguments, or otherwise failing to consider relevant evidence.
Epstein ends the episode with some discussion of the business opportunities afforded by superior explanation systems.
Suggested assignment: In the Facebook group, “share an example of how you frame a discussion in a way that’s effective, in a way that sets it up for success. Is there some question or line that you use early in discussions, that makes it easier for the other person to understand why your explanation is right, and the others are wrong?”
Having constructive conversations with people on controversial topics can be hugely valuable, but, says Epstein, “the world right now is full of destructive conversations, or at least non-constructive conversations.” He defines constructive conversations as those in which we “combine the knowledge and thinking abilities of two people to build a better understanding. . . . We want to end the conversation better than we began it.”
The key to Epstein’s method for constructive conversations is “framing,” first discussed in episode four. He says, “The framework of a conversation is both fundamental to its success, and extremely easy to improve.” For instance, many people are biased toward “green” energy, such as solar and wind, meaning they consider only positives about these and only negatives about alternatives, such as fossil fuels or nuclear energy. “With the issue of bias,” he says, “a huge amount can be accomplished by just saying, ‘Hey, would you agree that when we look at our different options, we should be as evenhanded as possible?’” Epstein has found framing to be extremely effective in his work on energy. “Good framing is often something that’s common sense, but not common practice,” he says.
Epstein talks about three useful ways of framing a conversation. The first is to establish a common goal. If you and the person you’re speaking with have different or opposing goals, it will be hard to have a constructive conversation. “If I were a doctor talking to a parent about the health of the child, I’d say, ‘Would you agree that our goal is the choice that’s best for your child’s long term health?’ because that would be the aspect of human flourishing that would be most relevant.” He explains that for any important issue, one could suggest as a common goal a relevant aspect of human flourishing.
The second means of framing that Epstein covers—which he calls “clear choices”—is to begin a discussion about a particular decision by clearly laying out all of the available options. He says that people often omit or misrepresent options that are contrary to their own views or offer fantasies as if they were options. For instance, on the topic of how we should fix health care in the United States, some entirely omit the free-market option or misrepresent it by claiming that that’s what we have today. As an example of offering a fantasy as if it were an option, Epstein says, “I remember when, in the early 2000s, President Bush was talking about difficulties in the Middle East. . . . He would just say, ‘I’m in favor of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in two states, in peace and security.’ . . . We can’t compare choices to fantasies.” He explains that you can frame a conversation this way by asking, “Would you agree that we need to be clear on our choices?” But more often, he’ll state what he thinks the choices are and ask whether the person he’s speaking with agrees. “And the reason I like doing that is because I like to attempt to lay out the choices as clearly as possible.”
The third means of framing a conversation is to establish that you’ll examine the full context of an issue, both positive and negative impacts of each choice. “Sometimes I’ll ask ‘Would you agree that we need to look at the pros and cons?’ And then ‘Would you agree that we need to look at them with a lot of precision, that we need to be clear on how big they are?’” Depending on the context, you could put this into statement form, saying something like, “I’m looking carefully at both the pros and the cons. And here they are.”
Epstein says that “most people will agree to a good framework, if you ask them. But most people will not follow a good framework if you don’t ask them. So do yourself a favor, do the other person a favor and ask framing questions at the beginning.”
Suggested assignment: “Come up with and share your own framing question” in the Facebook group. “What’s a question that you could ask another person that will better frame the conversation?”
In this episode, Epstein shares “one of the most powerful explanation techniques I’ve ever learned, which I call the opinion story.” Toward that end, he tells “the opinion story behind the opinion story.” He was having trouble explaining to people the value of his favorite book, Atlas Shrugged. For about ten years, his method was simply to declare to people that they should read it and to give them a long list of reasons why, an approach that met with little success.
But he stumbled upon a more effective way when he simply began telling people that Atlas Shrugged is his favorite book. Often, they then would ask why, and he would tell them that the characters made him think differently about his own life, and they inspired him to reach his highest potential. Most important, “instead of declaring my conclusion, I told them the story of how I reached my conclusion.” Instead of breeding resistance, Epstein’s opinion stories made people curious.
Noticing this, he started using stories whenever he wanted to share his view on a topic, particularly a controversial one, such as energy. And he found that people were far more receptive to contentious ideas when he did so.
This is the case, he says, for two primary reasons: (1) Opinion stories respect a listener’s context, and (2) they respect his intellectual independence. In order to have constructive conversations, it’s essential to communicate that “I respect your context, which means that I recognize that you’re coming from a different place than I am, at least to start, and that you have reasons for being in that place.” Likewise, it’s vital to make clear to others that “I respect that if you’re going to change, you need to be really convinced of something on your own. I can’t force you to do something.” You can provide people with ideas and appeal to their values, but the rest is up to them. Opinion stories enable people to share opinions with no expectation that others must agree. “Thus, they can observe my story from a position of feeling respected and having intellectual independence.”
Epstein has noticed that the most effective opinion stories have three important features: They apply a certain framework to the facts to arrive at a certain conclusion. Exemplifying framework, Epstein’s opinion story on energy makes clear his deliberate decision to evaluate questions on energy evenhandedly, precisely, and from a pro-human-flourishing perspective. Thus, he was able to integrate his framework for the conversation (see episode 5) into his opinion story. By contrast, when you just dive into the facts of your argument, others “have no reason to believe that you’re processing the facts in a good fashion.” With your framework in place, you then can continue the story about the facts you encountered and how you came to your conclusion.
Epstein adds that good opinion stories include your experience of uncertainty. However, depending on the context, it can be toxic to tell people, “Hey, I was once in your shoes.” This can communicate, in essence, “I was once wrong like you, and I can tell you what’s right”—which is condescending and does not respect others’ intellectual independence. Of course, your opinion story should also be authentic, and the reason you give for coming to your conclusion should be rational.
Suggested assignment: Share an opinion story in the Facebook group.
Creative work is an essential part of life, but it also can be taxing. So, says Epstein, “it’s very, very important to figure out how not only to create, but to rejuvenate, to restore ourselves to the optimal state for creation, among other things . . . so that we can enjoy the creative process more, so we can do it for a longer period of time.” He became particularly interested in this topic in 2014 after seeing a video in which Jerry Seinfeld praised transcendental meditation (TM). Epstein was in the midst of writing The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, and he needed a means of restoring his energy on a regular basis in order to finish it on time. So, he immediately invested a significant amount of money to take a class in TM and began tracking the results, which were consistently positive. Not only did he discover how to get “energy on demand,” but he learned to “deliberately seek knowledge about rejuvenation” and to experiment on himself and track the results.
But, he says, we can’t efficiently get knowledge about rejuvenation without clear standards for the types of experiences we’re looking for. For instance, Epstein uses five standards to gauge how rejuvenating an activity is: (1) It restores physical energy, (2) restores mental energy, (3) creates clarity or “altitude” (see episode 2), (4) relieves stress, and (5) facilitates motivation. He explains that standards for gauging rejuvenation are likely to vary from one person to the next and suggests spending time testing on oneself to figure out which standards suit one’s purposes. “Sometimes people consider this subjective, but I think it’s subjective in the right sense,” he says. “I’m the subject, and ultimately, the reason I want abstract knowledge is to figure out what will work for me.”
As an example of how specific rejuvenating activities can be, Epstein discusses one of his favorites: one-wheeling in the mid-afternoon or early evening while listening to choral music.
Suggested assignment: In the Facebook group, share a process that rejuvenates you and include details so that others can test your technique.
There’s a feeling that I love to avoid, particularly when I’m trying to excel in something or to get a lot of work done, which is the feeling of internal conflict about how best to spend my time. Epstein calls this “tortured productivity,” giving the following example:
I wake up in the morning, and one of the first thoughts in my mind is, what do I want to do today? I have, let’s say, two things scheduled on my calendar, like two phone calls. But besides that, I haven’t committed to what I’m going to do. So different options start to run through my mind. Should I work on sales? Well, that’s obviously important. We need to sell things to be a business. Or maybe I should work on our advertising, so that we’ll generate more prospects for sales. But wait a second, should I even be doing sales in the business? Maybe I should be recruiting someone. Maybe it’s inefficient to be doing it myself. Maybe I should be focused more on improving our products, because if I improve our products and services, so they better serve customers’ needs, that’s going to make advertising and selling and everything else much easier.
He used to think that this feeling of being overwhelmed by choices practically was an inevitable aspect of pursuing lots of values. But then he began spending a couple of hours on Sundays thinking solely about what he wanted to accomplish in the coming week. The positive impact was so great that he continued to add time to this reflective period, sometimes spending as much as an entire day planning the week to come. This experience enabled him to identify a very effective means of reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed: “separating the process of figuring out what work to do, from the process of how best to do it.”
By distinguishing between “what-thinking” and “how-thinking”—planning and execution—and making time for each, Epstein was able to experience more consistently what he calls “relaxed productivity,” which he describes as “a way of experiencing productive work that combines” feelings of purpose, energy, confidence, and relaxation. “The best analogy I can think of is of a great athlete while performing. Of course, he’ll use a lot of effort. But there is some fundamental ease that he has, which really captures something important in life.”
Epstein explains that, in his experience, combining what- and how-thinking doesn’t work. What-thinking requires more time than we tend to allocate for it. “So we do an abortive version of it. And then we jump into the how. But then we can’t be at ease during the how, because we don’t have confidence in the what.” And, “by the time I’ve gone through thinking about what I should be doing—with all this ruminating and uncertainty—I feel drained. My motivation is low, my energy is low, my confidence is low, I’m stressed by all these other things in my mind.”
Nowadays, Epstein aims for what he calls “calendar comprehensiveness” as a means of achieving relaxed productivity. Using his work life as an example (though he does this with his personal life as well), he first divides the types of work he does into several categories, such as content creation, advertising, and management. He then decides how much time to devote to each category in the coming week and commits to these times by putting them in his calendar. Some categories require more granular planning of specific activities and goals than others. For instance, when writing The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, he would give himself deadlines for finishing a given section and would send drafts to a friend who held him accountable for the work he’d committed to. But for more routine work, such as reaching out to customers or prospects, his team logs these tasks in a program (e.g., HubSpot or Salesforce), so he simply can plan to clear out any tasks assigned to him during the designated block.
An added bonus of time blocking is that “there’s something very powerful about a deadline. . . . If I have no sense of time, no boundaries, then I can’t really decide what to do, or I can’t really decide how to do it intelligently. Because I’m acting like there’s infinite time.” A deadline focuses one’s mind on the highest leverage tasks, because it reminds us that our time is, in fact, quite finite.
Epstein encourages getting clear on priorities and blocking one’s time as far in advance as several years, but merely having the next week or two scheduled can reduce stress immensely, making work both more enjoyable and vastly more productive. Calendar comprehensiveness, he says, is “engineered for human flourishing.” It’s “almost like skiing. It’s just downhill. You’ve set it all up. You put yourself at the top of the mountain. And there’s this incredible gravity from just doing” specific things at specific times.
Suggested assignment: Share with the Facebook group any tips you have on how to separate what-thinking from how-thinking.Alex Epstein’s Human Flourishing Project is loaded with life-enhancing ideas. Here’s a resource to help you retain and implement them. Click To Tweet