My guest today is John Green. He’s the author of The Fault in Our Stars, which began as a novel for young adults and ended up a cultural phenomenon. And he also with his brother, Hank, created the educational YouTube channel Crash Course, which has grown to an incredible 13-million subscribers.
GREEN: If there’s one thing I’ve learned after 30 years of being on the internet, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what the future looks like.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
One of the perks of having teenage kids is that it gives you an excuse as a grown man to read young-adult fiction without people thinking you’re strange. So I’ve secretly been a fan of John Green for a while. But when I stumbled on to his latest book, The Anthropocene Reviewed, I was shocked to discover that it was nonfiction actually meant for adults. I bought it. I went home and I immediately started reading it. I could not believe how good it was. I put it down, grabbed my phone, and I fired off an email inviting John to come on the podcast. Then I picked the book back up and I finished it that very same day.
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LEVITT: People I know often ask me who my next guest will be on this podcast, just as a way of making conversation. And when I tell them, they typically say something like, “Oh, who’s that?” or, “Yeah, I’ve heard of that person.” So a few days ago I was waiting for a meeting to start at my little center at the University of Chicago, and as the last stragglers were filtering in, someone asked me who my next guest was. And I said, “John Green.” And the room erupted. There were audible gasps. People were swooning. And then it turned into an argument about what was better, your books or your Crash Course videos. And no one could believe someone as hip as you would be willing to talk to someone as unhip as me.
GREEN: As a University of Chicago dropout, it’s particularly nice to hear that.
LEVITT: Wait, I didn’t know that. I’ve read a lot about you. You don’t advertise that very widely.
GREEN: I was very briefly enrolled in the University of Chicago’s divinity school. I thought I was going to become an Episcopal priest, and so I applied to div. school and got in, and was excited to go. And then I worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital for the six months before I was supposed to start. And that disavowed me of the notion that I was going to become a minister.
LEVITT: So you never actually set foot in a class at the University of Chicago?
GREEN: Correct. So I don’t know that I’m technically a dropout so much as I’m a never-quite-made-it.
LEVITT: There is a story about the economics department and the divinity school at the University of Chicago, which is that we had a really crappy building in the econ department and the divinity school had this fantastic building. And we repeatedly went to them, and tried to buy the building from them. And they said, “There’s no price at which we will sell you this building.” And that said a lot about the divinity school, and a lot about the economics department.
GREEN: Right. How could there not be a price?
LEVITT: Exactly. I’d like to go way back to the beginning, because it seems to me that there are few things that are more difficult than getting launched as a bestselling novelist. There are hundreds of thousands of new books published each year — millions, if you include self-publishing. And everything in the book industry is tilted towards the authors who’ve already had bestsellers in the past. Can you take me back to your first book — it’s called Looking for Alaska. What were you doing at the time, and as an unknown, how would you even manage to get a book contract much less, write a book that turned out to be a huge success?
GREEN: So after I figured out that I wasn’t going to go to divinity school, I nonetheless stayed in Chicago and ended up getting a job doing data entry for a magazine called Booklist, which is published by the American Library Association. And it’s what’s called a pre-publication review journal. So every two weeks, Booklist publishes hundreds and hundreds of book reviews to help librarians make their collection decisions. And I just was typing in ISBN numbers into a database. It was one of those jobs that I knew would soon be automated — but I wanted to hang around there as long as I could because it was just so thrilling to be with people who read books for a living and were so enthusiastic about books. And one of the editors at Booklist who became my mentor, Eileen Cooper, offered me the opportunity to start reviewing. And that allowed me to read hundreds and hundreds of books over the course of a few years. I’d always imagined writing books as a career like professional athlete or astronaut — a career that wasn’t available to regular people like me. But when you see 400 books reviewed every two weeks, you start to think, “Well, maybe it is possible.” And so Eileen took me out to lunch one day, and I told her I really wanted to write a book. And I outlined Looking for Alaska in the broadest terms. And she said, “That sounds great, but everyone has an idea for a book. And the difference is, can you write it?” And over the next two years, I worked with Eileen as I wrote the book and I would send her drafts and she would respond to them very generously. And then when I got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t make it better, we sent it to publishers. And I say, “we”, because Eileen helped me like write cover letters and all that stuff. It took a long time, but six months later, an editor at Dutton called me and said that they’d like to offer me a contract. It was a tiny advance. It was $8,000. But it was a chance to be published by a publisher I admired. I would like to say that the book became an instant bestseller, but in fact it hardly earned out its $8,000 — advance. So it was a long road.
LEVITT: Interesting, ‘cause it won prizes?
GREEN: Yeah, it did. I had a lot of support from my publisher and I had a lot of support from librarians and independent book sellers, and it did win a big prize. All of which helped, and I think is what ultimately allowed the book to reach the audience that it has. It just took a long time. The sales of Looking for Alaska got better every year for the first 11 years it was published.
LEVITT: Wow. That might be a record. Because when we wrote Freakonomics, we would sell more each week for like the first 10 weeks. And no one had ever heard of that before either, but that was for 10 weeks, not for 11 years.
GREEN: I think I was in the 10th week of Freakonomics buyers, so I guess you’re welcome.
LEVITT: By your third book, Paper Towns, you were really established. That popped out right onto the bestseller list.
GREEN: That was my first book to reach the New York Times bestseller list, which was a really significant milestone for me. But I thought it was way more interesting to have a long career in publishing than it was to have a big career. I wanted to be able to write books as a job for my whole adult life, if I could. And a lot of the people who do that are regular bestsellers, but a lot of the people who do it aren’t. And they make a living in a variety of different ways. I always had a day job. I assumed that I always would have a day job. And on some level I’ve always kept a day job because of the work that my brother and I do in educational video. And so I was really excited to be on the bestseller list. But honestly, I don’t know that was my goal. It was almost like I was living someone else’s dream, if that makes any sense.
LEVITT: Yeah, it makes total sense to me because Freakonomics was a fluke bestseller. I had never even wanted to be an author. When we signed the contract with the publisher, my dad said, “That’s immoral.” I said, “What are you talking about? Immoral?” He said, “It’s immoral for you to take the money from the publisher when no one wants to read the crap that you’re going to write. You shouldn’t even do the book.” So you said it wasn’t your dream to write bestsellers, but then you made the mistake of writing The Fault in Our Stars, which turned out to be one of the biggest books of all time. Time magazine’s fiction book of 2012. It was made into a smash hit movie. It was the single best-selling book in America in 2014. It sounds like you probably weren’t really ready for that.
GREEN: I was not ready for that. As, as I suspect you probably weren’t ready to be the author of Freakonomics.
LEVITT: Yeah, which is nothing — like, I think, my experience was probably nothing like yours. The chaos must have been unbelievable.
GREEN: Yeah, it’s a lovely, wonderful thing. It wasn’t my dream to become a best-selling author maybe, but it was certainly my dream to reach a lot of people with a story that mattered to me. And to have people really care about it, and really respond deeply to it. And that was the experience of publishing The Fault in Our Stars. It was extraordinary. It changed my life in a lot of really wonderful ways. But at the same time, any huge, unexpected change in your life is challenging, even if it’s largely good news. Our family had this two- or three-year period where it felt as if we were a little bit on a rocket ship, which is thrilling, but also, for those of us who are not very interested in space exploration, a little terrifying.
LEVITT: You’ve been really open about your mental health struggles — depression, O.C.D., anxiety. How did the success of The Fault in Our Stars interact with your mental health?
GREEN: I don’t think it was good for my mental health, certainly in the short run. It was pretty challenging to have this public life. You know, I’d been on the internet since 1992, and I loved the internet. It was a safe, happy, wonderful, celebratory place for me. And anytime something becomes wildly successful, there’s a measure of backlash to it. I certainly experienced that with The Fault in Our Stars. And that was the most disorienting thing, probably, the idea of having haters, you know, that was not something that I had mentally prepared for. All that noted, I think there is this impulse to look at the sort of, like, dark side of fame and success, but I wouldn’t give up one second of that experience. It allowed me to have many of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. And it also gave me financial security, which is something that I did not expect to have in my life with the career that I’d chosen. And it’s hard to overstate how much that helps. That relieves a lot of stress.
LEVITT: Yeah. People say that money doesn’t bring happiness, but my own experience is that having enough money so you don’t worry about money, brings incredible happiness. Just not having to fret about the little things, to me, opened up tons of psychological space.
GREEN: I think money is a real good example of marginal utility. I think at some point the utility curve inverts, you know? Most of the really wealthy people I’ve met are pretty — it’s a little hard to stay in touch with reality as most people experience it. And so I do think the utility curve probably inverts at some point, and it gets closer to a sort of hoarding mentality than it does to a freedom mentality. But it takes a while for that yield curve to invert.
LEVITT: I think you’re partly right. I partly disagree though. I think it depends a lot upon your psychology. And many of the people who have a lot of money, use the money as an indicator of how they’re doing, and that’s a disaster. Because then there’s always somebody richer. You always feel poor. And so I think people who have that bad relationship with money to begin with, they’re in a terrible situation when they get more money, because now they’re on a treadmill. It sounds like you already had a really good relationship with money before you got some money. And so it only did you good. But the other thing you said, which resonates so much with me was after Freakonomics, doors opened that I never imagined, and have allowed me to do amazing things — fun, challenging, interesting opportunities that never would’ve come. And that for me was completely unexpected. I really thought I knew what my life would look like. And then it got turned upside down in a great way. Because now I’m not doing anything like I would’ve been doing absent Freakonomics, which is great. Hey, so I went back and reread The Fault in Our Stars last week. I had read it many years ago. My oldest girls were young teens when it came out and I used to read lots of young adult novels, so we’d have something to talk about. And I honestly wasn’t prepared for how awesome the book would be. It’s edgy and witty and it’s aged incredibly well. Do you ever go back and reread things you’ve written in the past?
GREEN: No. No. I would never do that. I had to do it once. I wrote a screenplay adaptation of my book Paper Towns. And so I had to reread Paper Towns once in 2010. And it was excruciating. Once you can’t change it, it’s so challenging because all I see is the insufficiencies, the failures, the places where, you know, I was maybe trying too hard or not trying hard enough. But it is very nice to hear that the book has aged okay. Because I think that’s largely luck. I think when a book speaks to a moment, it’s largely coincidental if it ends up speaking to other moments.
LEVITT: You’d been cranking out books every year, every other year. And then after The Fault in Our Stars, there was a five-year gap before your next book, Turtles All the Way Down. Was it because you were doing a million other things, or did writing just get harder?
GREEN: It was both. Writing did get harder. I felt a little bit of pressure for sure. And I also felt the presence of people reading over my shoulder in a way that I’d never felt when writing before. One of the gifts of writing for me has always been that it’s a way out of myself. It’s a way to not be stuck inside of my particular consciousness for a while, which, because I have O.C.D., and I have these obsessive thought problems, is a real gift for me to be able to live in a different world; try to imagine what it might be like to be a different person or a different version of myself. And that went away after The Fault in Our Stars, because I didn’t feel like it was an escape from myself. I was always thinking about how people would respond, especially how people would read me into the story. And I was just very self-conscious. But also, Crash Course, our educational video project launched the week that The Fault in Our Stars was published and we had no idea how important that would be. And when I say we, I mean my brother, Hank, and me and our other collaborators. We had no idea how important it would become to our professional lives. So, I was really self-conscious and writing was really difficult. And I did write a lot of things that never became novels and it was a really frustrating time. And there were a lot of times when I thought I might be finished as a novelist. And, you know, eventually I had to come to a place where that was going to be okay. But there was also this emerging part of my professional life that was really taking prominence.
LEVITT: So one of the storylines in The Fault in Our Stars is this asshole author who hates his readers. Did you feel a lot of pressure not to be that asshole author?
GREEN: I thought of the novels as very separate from me. I came from a world where the author was dead and the intentions of the author were irrelevant. And we should try to think about the author as little as possible in analyzing the work. But by the time I wrote The Fault in our Stars, I was conscious of the fact that I was going to be read into that novel. Because I’d been friends with a young person who died of cancer, because I’d worked closely as a chaplain with young people who were dying. And so I thought, “Well, what if I made this author, and he’s kind of like me, but the monstrous version of me?” And I thought that would be sort of a funny joke. I mean, I imagined that The Fault in Our Stars was going to be my least successful novel, commercially. And so I imagine that kind of as a joke for the people who were really familiar with me, and would get a lot of the sort of subtle references between Van Houten and myself. I didn’t, of course, not imagine that I was going to be inundated with this level of fan mail and this amount of, you know, people asking me what happens after the end of the book, which is what the main character in The Fault in Our Stars wants to know from the author. And so there was this strange meta experience. As a result of writing The Fault in Our Stars, one of the gifts of it has been that I’ve been able to do dozens of Make a Wishes and be part of a lot of people’s lives as they navigate complex illnesses or difficult diagnoses. And there is this real meta experience where sometimes a sick kid will ask me what happens after the end of The Fault in Our Stars, and I’ll have to say, “Like Peter Van Houten, I also don’t know.”
LEVITT: Why did you think The Fault in Our Stars would be the least successful of your books?
GREEN: I remember like when my film agent read it right before it came out, she said, “A lot of people are going to want to make this movie.” And I was like, “Why?” It’s very sad. And also it just felt, as I was writing it anyway, it felt very small. It felt like I was painting on a small canvas, if that makes any sense. You know, there’s not very many characters. It’s really focused on one person’s experience. Which just goes to show you that authors can’t be trusted to analyze their own work. Like, you know, Mark Twain thought that his book about Joan of Arc was his greatest achievement. So, what do we know?
I’ll be right back with more of my conversation with John Green.
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LEVITT: So I moved to Germany recently, and I was in a German bookstore that had a tiny section of books in English. One shelf, maybe 30 total. And one of them was The Anthropocene Reviewed, your latest book released in 2021. And I must have been living under a rock for the last year because I had been completely unaware of the book’s existence, despite the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller. I have to say, the introduction to the book — it’s one of the most mesmerizing things I have ever read. It’s just an introduction. But in 10 or 20 pages, you managed to tell me more about yourself than I thought I’d ever see and in the most poetic and lyrical way imaginable. What do I know about writing, but for me that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Does that introduction stand out to you also as being special?
GREEN: Well, thank you for saying that. That means a lot to me. It does. The two parts of the book that were the hardest were the introduction and the conclusion. Because I had to figure out how to frame why I turned away from fiction and also frame why I was trying to write about big historical forces in the most personal way I could manage. One of the big challenges of writing for me is that I’m always trying to make myself vulnerable. I’m always trying to be as earnest as I can without being too sentimental. Although if I’m going to air in one direction, I want to air in the direction of sentimentality. I want to try to find a way to give expression to the reality and complexity of feeling. I think I say in that introduction that I want to feel what there is to feel while I’m here. And writing those two parts of the book, the very beginning and the very end were so difficult. I would go on these walks with my wife and she would be like, “You have to talk to me about something else. It’s been a month. You have to have a thought that isn’t about this.” And I would be like, “Unfortunately, I can’t.”
LEVITT: So it took you literally months to write the 10 or 15 pages that make up this introduction?
GREEN: Yeah, because I knew that it was the biggest challenge in the book because I knew I was setting the scene for people who’d only ever read my fiction or didn’t know me at all. And the rest of the book is this really, you know, somewhat weird mix of history and literary analysis and, like, memoir. How do you get people on that train — was the challenge for me in the introduction. The feeling of when things start to click together, when the disordered cosmos becomes clear in some way is so thrilling that I’m just always chasing that feeling. And I remember both finishing what became the introduction and finishing the conclusion so vividly because it was like, “Oh, at last. At last. There’s this thing Maurice Sendek said that I can use here that’s going to get me where I need to be.”
LEVITT: Mm-hmm. And your wife was really happy about that too. I’m sure.
GREEN: I don’t know if she was happy so much as relieved.
LEVITT: So this book, it’s different than anything I’ve ever read before. It’s made up of a set of vignettes. Each of which tells an engaging factual story about something interesting or curious in the world, but then intertwined is the way that particular topic of the chapter has played a part in your life. One of my personal favorites was a chapter on scratch-and-sniff.
GREEN: So I wrote about scratch-and-sniff stickers, and I wanted to understand the chemistry of them because it’s actually the same underlying technology that we use in time-release medication. And I didn’t end up including this in the essay, but I am alive, and able to work because of time-release medication. And so the same concept of micro-encapsulation that allows scratch-and-sniff stickers to work is what allows me to be, you know, the relatively healthy person I am. And that was really interesting to me on a personal level. But then I also wanted to understand it because it was this massive phenomenon in my childhood in the 1980s. And I wanted to write about how smell is really hard to replicate. Like scent is extremely difficult. I wanted to write about the kind of virtualization of experience that’s part of contemporary life, and write about the 1980s when I was a kid and when scratch-and-sniff stickers were a huge phenomenon. And I wanted to find the places where all these different forces met. So, I wrote about scratch-and-sniff stickers.
LEVITT: Scratch-and-sniff stickers played a surprisingly large role in your growing up. But what I found really interesting — you still had them. You still have your collection and even more interesting, you started scratching them and they still smelled the same after so many years. Amazing.
GREEN: Yeah. Scratch-and-sniff stickers were really important to my childhood. They were a way that I would comfort myself. I had a very happy childhood, but I was a very unhappy child. And I would comfort myself by going into my room and closing the door and turning off the lights and scratching these scratch-and-sniff stickers and just smelling, you know, this really powerful, specific scent. And then I went back to my scratch-and-sniff sticker book, which I still have. It’s this big, fluffy pink book. And I opened it up and I scratched the scratch-and-sniff stickers and they still smelled. And so I asked a chemist about this and the chemist was like, “I don’t see how that’s possible.” And I was like, “Well, I — come to my house.” Like I had my kids smell them to make sure that it wasn’t just like a psychosomatic experience. I might have the most extraordinary microcapsules in the history of the world.
LEVITT: Oh, man. An interesting feature of this book is that you give a rating on a five-point scale at the end of each chapter to the object that you discussed in the chapter. And initially, it felt a little gimmicky to me. But I came to really like it because it created an unexpected sense of dialogue between me, the reader, and you, the writer. So for instance, at the end of the scratch-and-sniff chapter, I felt like scratch-and-sniff deserved five stars, but you only gave it three-and-a-half. And I literally caught myself talking out loud to the book saying to you, “That’s not fair to scratch-and-sniff! It deserves more.” At the end of the sunsets chapter, I was saying, “Five stars. Are you crazy? Why are you giving sunsets five stars?” It’s a different kind of relationship. Anyway, that was my experience. Have you heard from others?
GREEN: Oh, yeah. I’ve definitely heard from a lot of people who were unhappy with my ratings. For me, they’re quite arbitrary. Just like actual ratings on a five-star scale. And so I wasn’t as invested in them as some readers are. I mean, this is one of my beefs with economics, Steve. And not with economics as you practice it or as it is practiced by a lot of people these days. But these early attempts to essentialize experience into single data points were really problematic, I think. And we are still somewhat living in the shadow of that because we still have these relatively simple algorithms of recommendation. I’m not sure that I want them to get better, but we have these relatively simple algorithms of recommendation where, you know, it’ll take together 17,000 ratings on a five-star scale and say, this is a 4.37 book or restaurant or public restroom. And this is a 4.32 book or restaurant or public restroom. I feel like we haven’t thought much about what that means. We haven’t talked enough about the implications of the rise of the rating of everything. And so I wanted to do that, I guess, but then I got stuck in a situation where I had to qualitatively rate everything.
LEVITT: Yeah. So you’re saying you don’t like the reductionism that comes with trying to take a complex experience and to narrow it down to, “Oh, that was three-and-a-half stars.” Is that’s the thing you’re rebelling against here?
GREEN: Right. So I’m rebelling against reductionism, ultimately, but the challenge of it is that reductionism can be really helpful. Like, it is really helpful to know which restaurant in the Indianapolis international airport is better. And I can’t know that until I’ve gone to all of them. Unless someone else tells me. It’s a really useful thing. That’s why we’ve seeded so much of our consciousness to it, but has some complicated consequences.
LEVITT: Could I ask you to talk about the chapter on Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart movie from the 1950s about a man and a six-foot-tall rabbit?
GREEN: So when I was about 24, I had a very severe episode of major depression, and was really, really sick. I was just in a state of absolute total despair. I could barely pick myself up off the kitchen floor one night. I was in real trouble. And thank God I called my parents and thank God they answered. And they said, “Let’s get you home from Chicago. Let’s get you into a mental health care treatment plan.” And they were at my apartment within 12 hours. But the next morning I had to go into work and tell my boss, Bill Ott, that I was leaving my job because I couldn’t function. So I went into his office, and I’ve always thought of Bill as kind of a character in a noir mystery novel. Like, he always called me “kid”, and he’s just a master of pauses — he’s just an incredible, incredible guy. So I went in there and, you know, all the pages of the magazine are scattered across his desk ’cause he’s proofing them. And I started to cry and I said, “I’m having this really bad crisis and I have to quit. I’m really sorry. I can’t put in two weeks’ notice, but I just have to go now.” And Bill said, “Kid, why don’t you just take a couple weeks, you know, see how you feel?” And I was like, “Well, you can’t just, like, not fill my job for two weeks.” And he said, “Kid, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think we’ll manage.” And so I got really sick. I was throwing up a lot. Like, I wasn’t really eating. I was only drinking Sprite, which is, you know, that’s not good for you. So I was throwing up in the bathroom all afternoon, like trying to make it to the end of the day of work. And I came back to my desk at one point, and there was a note from Bill that I still have framed in my house. And the note said, “I hope you’re back in two weeks with an appetite. Bill. P.S. Now, more than ever, watch Harvey.” And he’d been bugging me to watch this old, black, and white movie for years. And I didn’t like black and white movies and I made this quite clear because they have terrible special effects, and the things that happen are always boring. And so I went home, I got in a daily, constant mental-health facility thing. And eventually I was home with my parents one night and I said, “We should watch Harvey.” And they said, “Oh, God, Harvey’s a great movie.” So we watched Harvey and I mean, I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t believe in blinding light spiritual awakenings, but I have not felt as bad as I did five minutes before watching Harvey in the 21-years since I watched Harvey.
LEVITT: Wow. And what was it about Harvey?
GREEN: Harvey is a movie that is about a severely mentally ill man, who is not useful to society in any traditional sense. He does not contribute economically to the social order. He has a delusion that his best friend is a six-foot, three-inch-tall, invisible white rabbit named Harvey. He drinks too much. And yet, he is extraordinarily beneficial to his social order. And he does make a positive difference in the lives of the people he loves and who love him. Also, he is kind. He’s kind. There’s a line in the movie that’s one of my favorite lines of all time, where this main character Elwood P. Dowd says, “My mother always told me, in this world, Elwood, you must be, oh so smart or, oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart and I recommend pleasant.” I don’t think there was any person in the world who needed to hear that more in 2001 than me.
LEVITT: Wow. I found that story powerful when I read it and equally powerful in your retelling. But there was another chapter which really hit me. It made me cry in a way I haven’t in years. And that was the chapter on, of all things, Googling strangers. Could you talk about that?
GREEN: So, I’m really good at Googling strangers. Like I try to be a good Midwesterner who doesn’t brag too much, but I am really, really good at Googling strangers. It’s one of my greatest gifts. It’s partly something I do to manage my anxiety before parties or social occasions. But then it puts me in this weird, like asymmetry of information, where someone is chatting with me and they’re telling me about themselves, but they’re telling me things that I already know. But there is one person that I did not Google for a very long time, which is one of the people I met when I was a hospital chaplain. This kid was 3-years-old. He had a horrible burn and he was conscious when he came into the hospital — it was awful. Like afterwards, we were in like a break room and one of the doctors said to me, “I know that kid’s last words.” The assumption was that the kid was not going to survive. And I knew his name. I prayed for him every day. Even when I didn’t believe in prayer, I prayed for him every day for my whole life. And I knew that I could Google him. I mean, he has an unusual name and I knew that it wouldn’t be difficult. But I didn’t want to know. There’s that great Robert Penn Warren line, “The end of man is knowledge, but there’s one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether the knowledge will save him or kill him.” And I just didn’t want to know. I mean, I remember specific nights where I’d be at my computer and I would go to Google and think about it and then not do it. And then one day I did. And — he’s alive. He has a family. He is in college. He’s alive. And I wanted to write that essay because it’s a reminder to me that sometimes just being is more than enough. And then because life is strange and beautiful through the beneficence of a podcast called Heavyweight, I was able to talk with him.
LEVITT: Hm. How was that?
GREEN: It was incredible. I don’t think it was that special for him, but it was incredible for me. It was really lovely because we’re very different people. You know, we have different value systems. We live in very different places, just totally different people. But he was so kind to make space for me, and to listen carefully to me. And it was a reminder to me that people who are very different from us, who often we essentialize, or may have a series of suppositions about, and may feel angry or resentful toward, you know, there are ways that we can make space for each other, and find that common ground and be kind to each other and listen empathetically. And he was all of that. We ended up talking for almost three-and-a-half hours, and it was a heck of a gift to me.
LEVITT: Hm. So when you’re telling that story now you focused on the boy, but in the writing, there was a lot of emphasis on the parent, and you might have guessed knowing I reacted so strongly that I once was a parent, very much like the ones you describe. I had a 1-year-old, a son, Andrew, and he got bacterial meningitis, and it all happened so quickly. And I knew it was serious, but I didn’t understand how serious. And then there was the chaplain. And I knew that meant he was dying. And it’s a tribute to you that your words brought me back to that moment, like nothing ever has. It was an awful moment, the worst of my life. And it’s probably hard for others to understand, but it was still a gift from you to me to allow me to go back there. So thank you for that.
GREEN: Thank you, Steve.
LEVITT: It really meant a lot to me.
GREEN: Thank you. And I’m sorry for your loss.
LEVITT: I mean, it was terrible. But, you know, the thing is time — it’s strange how the worst thing that ever happened to me, the bad fades and somehow the good remains, at least that’s been my experience. And life goes on. So anyway, I don’t know where to go from that. That’s kind of a — talk about a conversational dead end, your son dying.
GREEN: One of the things I think is so hard about loss is that the way that we talk about our lives and our families often doesn’t make space for it. You know, like doesn’t make space for the conversation to continue after that gets acknowledged. Like then you end up in this sort of conversational ditch, right? Where people are like, “Well, I don’t know how to respond to that.” And I kind of think, I do know how to respond to it. At least in a small way, which is to say that you sharing that with the story, bringing that experience to that essay, is an act of just extraordinary generosity. I think this is something that we lose track of when we talk about books and stories is how much the reader matters. So thank you.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with author John Green. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about his YouTube creations.
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We’ve talked a lot about John Green’s books, but his emergence as a YouTube sensation is equally impressive. If you ask a 15-year-old who John Green is, they’re more likely to know him through his YouTube channels than through his books.
LEVITT: You’ve been vlogging — video blogging on YouTube since 2007. And I think YouTube only launched in 2005. And your Vlog Brothers channel has roughly three-and-a-half million subscribers? My own experience with blogging, regular blogging, not video blogging is that I just didn’t have very much that was worth sharing. But once we got started, Steven Dubner and I — we had a Freakonomics blog — we had a lot of followers, and I felt this moral obligation to just keep going. I didn’t want to let people down. But it was to me incredibly, psychologically costly to keep doing it. And I should have stopped years before I finally did. How do you keep coming up with new things to say after all these years?
GREEN: I don’t know that I do to be fair. I suspect I repeat myself, if not in language, at least in theme. But I love the rhythm of a Tuesday. So I’ve made a video almost every Tuesday for the last 15 years. And I’ve become accustomed to this way of making, that if I don’t have an idea on Monday morning, I better get one. It gives a kind of structure to my professional life that I really benefit from because I don’t have that structure — I don’t have a clock to punch or anything. I love starting out my week that way. My brother makes a video on Fridays — that to me would be a much bigger challenge. I have no idea how to end a week with making a video, but I love to start a week that way.
LEVITT: So it’s an awesome platform. Just as one example, you’ve managed to raise $25 million to build a hospital in Sierra Leone, putting up $6.5 million of your own money. Hats off to you. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
GREEN: Thank you. We’re really excited. The heroes of the story are the healthcare workers in Sierra Leone and the construction workers and everybody who’s making it possible for there to be better maternal and child healthcare in the Kono district. And the most exciting thing to me about the Maternal Center of Excellence, and this model of global health in general, is that this will become a teaching hospital that will train the next generation of Sierra Leonean nurses and midwives and doctors, so that we can really see the kind of long-term change that we need to see. We started raising money for the Maternal Center of Excellence in 2019, when one-in-17 women in Sierra Leone could expect to die in pregnancy. Extraordinarily high rates of maternal mortality — hundreds, or in some cases even a thousand times higher than we see in wealthy countries. And in the last three years, there have been real improvements in maternal healthcare in Sierra Leone. Now, maternal mortality is now closer to one-in-20 or one-in-21. It’s still, you know, hundreds of times higher than it ought to be, and that we believe it will be in the future, but a lot of times good news happens slowly and bad news happens all at once. And so we tend to focus on the bad news that’s crashing over us in waves and not on the slow long-term work that people are doing together to try to make a better world for us to share. And that’s why we really wanted to make this long-term investment and have this long-term focus so that we can tell the story of maternal health in this one impoverished community over a decade or longer.
LEVITT: I just did a couple of podcast episodes that touched on just how hard it is for people to give away their money. And my own experience is the same. I’ve struggled charity-wise in finding a particular cause that trumps all others. How did you come to focus on this one region of Sierra Leone? This one topic?
GREEN: When you start to think, “Well, what is the root of inequality? Or what is the root of injustice?” I don’t think that there’s any one answer. I’m a little suspicious of anybody who has one answer, because I think it’s such a complicated question. For us, we saw both an obvious injustice. Like there is no real reason why one-in-10 Sierra Leonean kids die before the age of 5. Or why one-in-20 Sierra Leonean women will die in childbirth. That isn’t a result of some natural phenomenon. It is the result of historical, socio-political forces. And so we saw this obvious injustice that could be rectified. And we saw in Partners In Health, an organization that has a long history of making long-term systemic change in healthcare systems. And so for us, it wasn’t about, is this the best way? It was about, we have been waiting long enough and here is an obvious injustice that we can address.
LEVITT: You said you didn’t believe in epiphanies. Was there an epiphany moment where you said, “This is the thing,” or, “This is the place?” Or was it a slow unwinding over time?
GREEN: There was a moment of epiphany where I was like, “We have to give most of this money away.” I really think of it as giving it back. Sarah and I had always kind of talked in the abstract about giving a lot of our money away and maybe building out a really big charitable trust that if we let it grow for decades could become really significant. And somebody at Partners In Health made an argument that I found extremely compelling, which was that if you give the money away now, it also grows. It just doesn’t grow in terms of the size of the pile of money. It grows in the form of more mothers surviving childbirth, fewer kids being malnourished, more kids having educational opportunities. And that growth is more important to me than growing the size of the charitable trust to be as big as it can be.
LEVITT: So among all your accomplishments, I think I would put Crash Course right near the top. Now this is another YouTube channel that you’ve built with your brother, Hank. It’s a series of educational videos. It’s just awesome. Its content is fabulous. It has almost 14-million subscribers — for an education site. I mean, damn! Well done.
GREEN: Thank you. Yeah, it’s wild.
LEVITT: My one sentence summary of Crash Course lectures for people who haven’t seen them is this. Think of the best teacher you ever had. Their best lecture, but turbocharged by world-class graphics and visuals.
GREEN: I think we might use that one-sentence summary.
LEVITT: You’re the teacher in the history Crash Courses. How much effort goes into producing, say just a single episode?
GREEN: A lot, but it’s not primarily my effort. This is one of the strangenesses of making content with a large team. There’s one face associated with it. When I’m in Target, or at the drive through line at Starbucks. I’m the person who gets to hear directly about the impact from young people or older people who’ve benefited from Crash Course, but I’m not the person who does most of the work. There’s a big team of people who work on Crash Course. It’s really difficult to quantify the number of hours that go into an individual episode. But it’s certainly in the hundreds. And my contribution to it. I usually take a script and in the office, they often call it “Greenifying,” like Hank and I making it sound like us, or making it sound appropriate to our voices. But in that process is where a lot of the nuance comes in — in conversations with editors, and writers, and everything. And then I host them, and then they go off and get edited.
LEVITT: So a hundred hours of work is a lot per episode, but then it gets watched by a million people, which makes it a real bargain compared to the University of Chicago, paying me my salary to stand and lecture in front of 80 students delivering a far inferior product. Now, I don’t want to get you in trouble, but don’t you think the future of education should be video-based where something like Crash Course delivers incredible lecture content. And the role of the teachers just greatly transformed. Their job isn’t to teach kids facts and concepts, but instead to do things that a live, caring human being can do that a video can’t. That’s half the reason why I would like lectures to come in this video form. The other half is — look, you just deliver content in a way that I cannot in my classroom. And what you do is better than what I do on that dimension, so why in the world wouldn’t I want to take that solution, especially when the marginal cost of that solution is zero, ’cause you already made the materials. It seems to me such a win-win, but I got to say this is one issue on which I’ve had zero traction. I’ve been talking about this for two or three years now. And I can’t say I really think I’ve convinced anybody that’s a good idea.
GREEN: Yeah. Well, it’s a slow process, creating the future. When we started out, YouTube was banned in most schools. We started Crash Course because we received a grant from YouTube to start it. And I think one of the reasons they gave us that grant was that they thought it would be nice if YouTube weren’t banned in almost every school. I think the change is happening. It’s just being careful and cautious and thoughtful about how we make those changes.
LEVITT: A topic that comes up a lot in this podcast is quitting something. And I’m a big believer in the idea that people don’t quit nearly enough. Now, you are definitely not a quitter when it comes to vlogging, but you do quit on books that aren’t working out the way you’ve hoped. What is the longest amount of time you’ve spent on a book only to abandon it?
GREEN: Oh, too long. You’re so right. You got to quit faster. That’s such a good observation. I have never in my life quit something and thought, “Oh, I wish I’d kept at it a little longer.” I always quit too late. So after I wrote The Fault in Our Stars, I spent over a year working on a desert island novel. A novel where these six young people were stranded on a desert island. I’ve always been fascinated by desert island novels — just the way that they can intensify human interaction and curiosity The problem with the book — I mean, there were a lot of problems with the book. The biggest problem was that it had no guts in it. It had none of me in it. It had no heart in it. It felt very cheap. You know, it didn’t have that vulnerability that I think a book needs to have. And so I spent a year-and-a-half on that and I remember saying, “Well, okay, let’s put it away for two weeks and then I’ll read it.” And I put it away for two weeks and I read it and I was devastated. There was nothing in it that could be saved.
LEVITT: Now it’s interesting to me that just two weeks away, you could come back and not be so deeply invested in what economists call “the sunk-cost fallacy”. That you wouldn’t just charge ahead. That’s a tribute to you, I think, that you had the wisdom to be able to walk away after all that work.
GREEN: Thank you, but I’m not sure that that’s true. I think there’s a distinct possibility that it was just that bad. Also, I just remembered in telling the story that it was not after The Fault in Our Stars. It was before The Fault in Our Stars. And I only know that because I read it and I was just distraught. I was like, I can’t believe I wasted a year of my life. There was nothing. There was nothing that could be saved. Except there was this one sentence: “It was kind of a beautiful day.” And I was like, this is all such crap. Like I’ve written 40,000 words of utter crap, but this sentence, “It was kind of a beautiful day,” there’s something a little lovely about it. And I remember highlighting like those six words or whatever and control X-ing and putting them in a new Word document and that became The Fault in Our Stars. So maybe I needed to write all of those 40,000 words to write, “It was kind of a beautiful day.”
LEVITT: Yeah, it’s almost near the end of the book, right?
GREEN: Yeah. And by the way, I still like that sentence. Like, I think, “It was kind of a beautiful day,” is a heck of a good sentence.
LEVITT: A year well spent.
GREEN: Oh, I mean, there’s been so many though. After The Fault in Our Stars, I was really — oh, I was so sold on writing this book. It was a sequel to a book that didn’t exist. I was really enamored with this idea. I spent, like, I don’t know, eight or nine months on that. And it went nowhere. I mean, it’s a pretty common phenomenon for me. It’s just something that you have to get used to. I think that’s a really good way of thinking about it though, which is to think like, “Well, quitting isn’t necessarily bad news. I could have quit tomorrow and instead I quit today, and that saved me a day.”
LEVITT: A topic that’s been coming up on this podcast a lot recently is when is it enough? So the psychologist, Dan Gilbert, he said on the podcast, he’s full. He doesn’t ever need to write another academic paper. And Yuval Noah Harari, he tries to carve out two months a year for silent retreats, even in the midst of being one of the most prominent public intellectuals. But then I just talked with a woman named Charity Dean the other day, and she says she doesn’t have time to slow down. God put her on this earth to serve a purpose. So what’s your current view on that topic?
GREEN: It’s a big one. I wonder if it’s been coming up on the podcast a lot because the pandemic reshaped a lot of people’s thinking about enough, and about what enough looks like. I know that it reshaped a lot of things in our family. And I’ve had to think about it a lot, partly because I’ve had a lot of periods where I thought, probably, I was finished writing. Because I just felt like I couldn’t do it well anymore, couldn’t do it to my satisfaction, or couldn’t meet the needs of readers. What I’ve come to for the moment is a feeling that the work is a gift. And I like making gifts for people. And these are the gifts that I know how to make. I know how to write stories and I know how to make videos. That’s where I can make a difference. And I want to try to make that difference if I can. But I also need to make a difference in the lives of the people who are closest to me, because that’s the biggest difference you make. Like your work is incredible and has had a big impact on my life and a big impact on the lives of millions of people. I think about stuff from Freakonomics all the time. And, yet, the biggest impact you’re going to have in your life is in the lives of your children, the lives of your students, the people you know in real life and care for, and lift up and attend to. And that’s always going to be the very best use of your attention and your consciousness. And so, I don’t want to sacrifice that, which is the biggest difference I’ll ever make — is in the lives of my kids and lives of my family and people I mentor and care for personally. That’s always going to be the biggest difference. And so if I’m sacrificing that for this other kind of work, I think that’s a mistake.
I admired John Green before I talked to him. I admire him even more having met him. Not only has he created things that so many people enjoy and learn from, but he’s done it in such an open and honest way. One of the biggest differences I see between older generations, people like me, and the younger generation, like my college-aged children, for example. It’s that people my age are deeply socialized to hide our weaknesses and shortcomings from the world, whereas young people these days, they don’t feel that same stigma. I think it’s no coincidence that John Green is both open about his struggles and that he’s made such a powerful connection with today’s youth. I wish I were more like him. But damn do I find it hard to overcome a lifetime of socialization.
Thanks for listening to my conversation with John Green. But before you go, Morgan and I are going to discuss an answer I gave to a listener question a few weeks ago that didn’t sit very well with a lot of people.
LEVEY: Hey Steve. So we got a lot of feedback on a listener question segment we had at the end of our Peter Singer episode.
LEVITT: Yeah, I haven’t offended that many listeners in a long time. We have some amends to make. Huh?
LEVEY: We answered a question about rising tuition costs at universities. Do you want to restate for the audience what your basic argument was?
LEVITT: Sure. So my basic point was that over the last 20 or 30 years, the salaries that are paid to people with high levels of education in this country have gone way up both inside of academia and outside of academia. So Since universities are so tilted towards high-skilled labor and the relative prices of high-skilled labor have gone up a lot, it only makes sense that the cost of tuition at universities should go up because one of the most important inputs into their production function has gotten more expensive.
LEVEY: But in digging into the reason for rising tuition costs, it seems like administrative bloat is more of a reason than rising faculty salaries.
LEVITT: So I’m not even sure what they mean by administrative bloat. What do you think they’re talking about?
LEVEY: More administrators. So, you know, as universities start to take mental health more seriously, there’s a lot more mental health providers for students. Colleges are competing to be green, and so there might be a position like head of sustainability on campus, which definitely didn’t exist 10 years ago. So I think there’s more administrators and they’re being paid higher salaries.
LEVITT: And that makes a lot of sense. I made a mistake in not talking about that. But I think it’s actually the same principle at work. When we talk about administrators at universities, we’re talking about really high-skilled people. Like college presidents — I think the evidence on college president salaries is that they’re going through the roof So I stand corrected when I said faculty. That was too limited. I should have said faculty and administrators and it would’ve been a better argument.
LEVEY: So I think a great way to revisit this topic would be through one of our specific emails that we got, and we got an email from our listener Ben. And Ben manages a team of engineers, and he spends a lot of time recruiting and interviewing, and so has a pretty good understanding of the market rate for engineers in the private sector. He also has a wife who is a recently tenured engineering professor at a private university, and his argument is that she does not have an exorbitant salary that does not measure up to the market standard for what engineers are paid. So how do you respond to Ben?
LEVITT: I never meant to say that people who work in academic jobs are getting paid more for doing those jobs than they could earn in the private sector. What I was trying to say is that over time the kind of people who go into academics, their outside options, the salaries have gone way up. So this is the perfect example. I bet if we had Ben here to talk with us now, he’d say that the salaries of the engineers on his team have gone through the roof compared to 10 or 20 years ago. I wasn’t trying to say that his wife, an academic engineer, was getting paid more than engineers in the private sector. I was just trying to say that all engineers are getting paid more and the universities aren’t living in a vacuum, they have to compete with the private sector. So if the kinds of people who work at universities, if they can make a lot more money outside the university today than they could 20 years ago, then universities have no choice but to raise salaries to try to compete. Now let’s be fair, university jobs come with lots of perks. There are many people who will forgo a lot of salary to be part of a university. I would be a great example of that. I could make a lot more money outside the university than I do inside. But I love the university. I love what I’m able to do, and I accept less money. So university salaries have always been below private-sector salaries. It’s just that both university and private-sector salaries of engineers and economists, and lawyers and doctors have all been going up.
LEVEY: But what about the humanities? So it might be true that if you’re an engineering professor, you could leave academia and join the private sector, and there’s jobs and they’re going to pay quite well. But if you’re an English professor at a university, and you leave, I mean, maybe you write a book, but there’s not a private sector to offer you high salaries. So what happens there?
LEVITT: Yeah, many of the people who wrote us made this point very convincingly, that humanity salaries at universities have not tracked economics or engineering salaries within the university. Let’s just start by acknowledging that, because I think that offended a lot of people that I cast a blind eye to that point. Okay. But now having made that concession, let me say one more thing, which will probably aggravate them more than the first thing I said, which is, from an economic perspective, although the absolute dollar values paid to humanities faculty are not very high, in a sense of the market, they actually are not low. When a university posts a faculty job in the humanities, my guess is that on average they get a hundred or 200 applications for every job. If these jobs were underpaid in the sense in which economists think about how markets work, then they wouldn’t get any applications. The fact that there’s so many people who are willing to take these jobs, despite the fact that the salary isn’t very high, suggests that the salary might still be, from an economist’s perspective, too high. Does that make sense? It’s supply and demand, and there’s an enormous supply of people who are willing to take humanity jobs. Even in absolute terms at these quite low salaries, and that just suggests that there aren’t very good outside options for these people. I do think it unfortunately is the way markets work.
LEVEY: And so you’re saying that colleges and universities are using this high availability of labor to then set humanities salaries lower because they have such a huge number of people to choose from.
LEVITT: Exactly. And one of the other trends that many astute listeners pointed to is that universities have moved away from true faculty positions towards adjuncts and other very low paid, uncertain career paths. If you’re in that labor market, it feels awful because it is awful, because universities are doing exactly what you might expect they would do when they’re faced with surplus supply of labor and they’re trying to cut costs. They’re making changes that are trying to scrape away the last little bits of surplus from the humanists. Now, it may be that this move towards adjuncts isn’t actually good for scholarship or good for education. That’s a totally different question. But purely from the financial side, universities, I believe they’re being very astute in the way they exploit the market power that they have, for better, or for worse.
LEVEY: If colleges are so good at cutting costs and relying on adjunct lecturers instead of tenure-track faculty, why are tuitions still rising?
LEVITT: So it’s so interesting because I just stumbled onto this College Board report about tuitions, and I actually, myself, was very surprised to see that while it’s true that the listed price, the sticker price of going to universities has just been going up and up. According to their analysis, if you’re taking into account financial aid after inflation, this report finds the actual amount of money it costs to go to college has not increased in the last 15 years. And I suspect that a big reason for that is that universities have become more and more effective at figuring out how to cut costs for the part of the labor market that just doesn’t have a lot of market power.
LEVEY: Okay. And if our listeners still have more questions about tuition and how universities are run, Freakonomics Radio did do a four-part series on colleges called “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.” It’s episodes 500 through 503. And that might answer more questions for our listeners.
LEVITT: And let’s put that College Board report into the show notes. I think a lot of people might find it interesting, very thorough.
LEVEY: If you have a comment, question, criticism for us. Our email is email@example.com. That’s P-I -M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I really do read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.
In two weeks, former professional poker player Annie Duke will be on to talk about one of my favorite topics: quitting.
DUKE: I grew up with a father who prided himself on never missing a day of work, no matter how sick he was. And this is what was instilled in me. And when I left graduate school and became a poker player, even though I was so successful, I always felt some sense of shame for having quit. Like a pretty strong sense of shame. I wanted people to stop getting that message that it’s not okay to quit.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Alina Kulman, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: So there’s going to be a musical break, I think, at this point.
GREEN: That’s how you’re going to deal with it? Standard musical break?
LEVITT: Yeah, exactly. Maybe a double length one.
- John Green, best-selling author and YouTube creator.
- “Tuition Inflation Isn’t as Bad as You Think,” by Felix Salmon (Axios, 2022).
- “Fast Facts: Expenditures,” by the National Center for Education Statistics (2022).
- “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021,” by the College Board (2021).
- “#37 John,” by Heavyweight (2021).
- The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, by John Green (2021).
- “Scratch ‘n’ Sniff Stickers and the Indianapolis 500,” by The Anthropocene Reviewed Podcast (2019).
- “How Joan of Arc Conquered Mark Twain,” by Ted Gioia (America: The Jesuit Review, 2018).
- Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green (2017).
- The Fault in Our Stars, film (2014).
- The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (2012).
- Looking for Alaska, by John Green (2005).
- All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren and Noel Polk (1946).
- Harvey, film (1950).
- vlogbrothers, YouTube channel by John and Hank Green.
- Crash Course, YouTube channel by John and Hank Green.
- “Peter Singer Isn’t a Saint, But He’s Better Than Steve Levitt,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back To School,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2022).