I love books, but they’re kind of hands-on. You can’t read while you’re cycling down the superhighway, or hanging laundry, or washing the dishes, or any of the host of other mundane activities that consume great chunks of our lives.
Being the kind of person who gets antsy if any spare moment is left unfilled, I can’t believe it took me so long to dive into the magical world of podcasts. All that dead time, now brimming with life! It’s kind of trippy that you can be buying bog roll at the supermarket while an astrophysicist sits in your head and explains how black holes work. A vast ocean of knowledge and entertainment is available at the push of a button, and is 100 PER CENT FREE.
It’s probably unhealthy to try and cram activities into every waking moment – I set aside dedicated quiet time to think about nothing whatsoever – but solitude and reflection was not exactly what I was getting when I pushed a trolley through a crowded grocery store anyway.
The point is, podcasts are an amazing way to get a tiny bit less dumb every day. The medium is really starting to boom, which means more great free content for you and me. I haven’t got into audiobooks to the same degree, because I like being able to take notes from actual books, and they generally cost money (if you do want to have a trial run with Audible, you can get your first two books for free here).
After trying out loads of different shows over the last few years, these are the ones I like best. I’ll keep this post updated as I come across more gems (send me suggestions!) For want of a better classification system, I’ve split them up into learning, fun/learning, and pure unadulterated fun.
Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University, and author of the excellent Marginal Revolution blog. He has very broad interests, to the point where he seems to have a well-informed opinion about pretty much everything. That makes the format of the podcast extra interesting, because it truly is a conversation between Tyler and his guest.
This show is produced by the New York City Skeptics, but rather than sneering at religion or superstition, it explores the merits of all sorts of scientific and philosophical topics. A great primer for overcoming fuzzy thinking and acting more rationally, which seems more and more like a worthy pursuit to me.
This show has been going for more than 10 years, and it’s not hard to see why it’s had such an amazing run. Some of the crunchy economics stuff goes over my head, but most of it’s accessible to anyone with at least a passing interest. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from spanning all sorts of different topics, and an insanely high calibre of guests (over a dozen Nobel laureates have been on the show).
Kara Swisher is a bona fide badass. She’s one of the most respected journalists in Silicon Valley, and I love her brutally honest, no-bullshit interviews on all things technology (for background, check out her fascinating interview on the Tim Ferriss show).
Favourite episode: Marc Andreessen on venture capital, tweet-storming and sleep.
Ezra is editor-at-large of Vox. While not quite living up to its billing as the great hope for accurate and nuanced journalism, Vox is not as consistently bad as most sites, and Ezra is one hell of a smart guy. I skip the politics stuff, which bores me to tears, but he has all sorts of other cool guests on.
Favourite episode: Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens (the best book I read this year), on meditation and artificial intelligence.
Sam Harris made his name as one of the ‘new atheists’, but I mostly skip his episodes on religion and Trump, which get pretty repetitive after a while. The guy has loads of experience in meditation and psychedelics and a doctorate in neuroscience, so his episodes on secular spirituality are way more interesting to me. He’s not afraid of saying things that are outside the Overton Window, and has a Spock-like ability to remain calm and measured when debating guests. Let his soporific voice wash over you.
Favourite episodes: What is technology doing to us? with Tristan Harris, being good and doing good with Will MacAskill (author of one of the best books I read last year).
I really appreciate Tim Ferriss, even though his marketing schtick is a bit much for me (discussed at length in my review of the Four Hour Workweek). To me, this podcast is his greatest legacy. Interviews with big stars normally last a few minutes, and they’re only there to plug their latest movie or book. These episodes go for literally hours, are uncut, and get deep into the weeds on the habits and practices that make successful people successful.
This show explores every facet of location-independent business, freelancing, start-ups, productivity, and the nomad life in general. It has loads of practical advice, and offers transcripts of most episodes, which makes it easy to go back and pull things out.
Rockstar physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince host a panel show full of pithy British wit and fascinating science.
Favourite episode: Are we living in a simulation?
If I didn’t listen to SYSK, how would I know why men have nipples, or who gets to name continents? Some people don’t like this show because the hosts will happily go off on a 10 minute tangent about some obscure film or the stomach bug they had over the weekend, but that’s exactly why I love it. The bromance between Chuck and Josh is a joy to behold, and occasionally I even learn something (do take them with a pinch of salt at all times, especially on the hard science topics).
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, offset by a comic foil in Chuck Nice, mashes up science and pop culture. They get huge-name guests, have lots of laughs, and it’s all aimed at the layperson. I especially like it when Bill Nye fills in, because he’s basically the real life Rick Sanchez.
Favourite episode: The science of Game of Thrones
Reading the Freakonomics books was how I first realised economics was fascinating rather than deathly boring. The podcast stays true to those quirky roots in its quest to explore the hidden side of everything, and Dubner is a very level-headed and amusing host.
This NPR show offers quick little bite-sized episodes on pretty much anything and everything related to money, which is a nice way to fill 20 minutes.
A couple of Kiwi comics watch the same godawful film every single week for a year. Their slow descent into insanity is fascinating to watch, with lots of belly laughs and dark moments along the way. It’s been especially nice having some comforting New Zealand accents in my ears as I’ve been trotting all over the place.
Comedian Pete Holmes has that Mark Maron-style habit of turning literally every conversation into a personal therapy session, but he makes up for it by being funny and goofy and the most adorable human being you will come across.
I’ve been waging a constant battle to keep my backlog of subscriptions below 50 hours. Now I’ve finally cleared the jam, and on the lookout for new recommendations again. Please leave a comment or send me an email and let me know your favourite shows!