Life Advice From the Smartest and Wisest Person I Know

Practical wisdom from a true polymath.

Posted Jul 20, 2014

Michael Scriven is smart, wise, and a polymath:  He has published in the leading journal in eleven disciplines: from philosophy to mathematics, evaluation to parapsychology. He’s also relentlessly practical: with impressive expertise in design of word processors, knives, and sports cars.

I got to know Scriven as my PhD advisor at Berkeley and we have remained friends ever since: three decades.

For today's The Eminents interview, I spent three hours interviewing him on the question, “What are your thoughts on living the life well-led?

Here are that interview’s highlights:

Marty Nemko: What was your most important early decision?

Michael Scriven: To be a polymath. The world was full of specialists. As a teenager, I assessed that with so many specialists out there, I might make a bigger difference being cross-disciplinary.

Marty Nemko: What percentage of that decision was altruistic, what percentage simply that you crave novelty?

Michael Scriven: 50/50.

Marty Nemko:  So what did you do?

Michael Scriven: I was training to be a fighter pilot but felt compelled to switch to the foundations of mathematics: logic, informal logic. Then it was philosophy: the existence of God, especially as it relates to cosmology.

Marty Nemko: What did you conclude?

Michael Scriven: The best theist argument is that something supernatural created the first natural object. That’s God.

Marty Nemko:  But that definition is very far from the God most people believe in: a benevolent omniscient, omnipotent entity.

Michael Scriven.  Yes, that’s certainly the Judeo-Christian conception. I’m an atheist although lately I’ve been looking into Hinduism and Buddhism’s teachings, which focus on renouncing materialism, and in which the teachings come mainly not from a deity but from disciples.

Marty Nemko:  What was your next key decision?

Michael Scriven: To study the foundations of ethics. When I was coming of age, the field was viewed as clearly inferior to hard science. I’m glad I rejected that notion.

Marty Nemko: And that paved the way for you to get interested in what you’re most well-known for: the evaluation of innovation, which you believe is, or at least should have ethics at its core.

Michael Scriven: Right. Indeed, that’s a primary mission of the foundation I set up, the Faster Forward Fund: to better suffuse ethics throughout evaluation.

Marty Nemko: Give me an example.

Michael Scriven: Well, peer review is done terribly. And it’s critical: 16 nations make a large percentage of their funding decisions based on peer review. Our foundation is trying to improve that process, to make it more ethical.

Marty Nemko: Does that have any applicability for how my readers live their lives?

Michael Scriven: Yes. We all ask experts for advice but those experts, while perhaps having a terminal degree, may not be trained in or have the expertise to really advise us well. We must take expert advice with grains of salt.

Marty Nemko: Speaking of training, other than the traditional school route, what’s your favorite way to get world-class expertise in something?

Michael Scriven: Get involved in groups discussing the issues, ideally groups including really smart people with real expertise. These days, there are many such forums online.

Marty Nemko: You had a one-hour private meeting with Albert Einstein. Is there a take-away from that that may be useful to us in living the life well-led?

Michael Scriven: I posed my core question to him as a thought experiment. He liked that. I think thought experiments are useful ways to expand thinking.  Anyway, after he answered, he said, “I have a question for you: “I’m struggling with whether “now” exists. I was nervous. This was the big showtime. I tried, “Do you have a problem with the concept of "here?” When he said no, I said, “Well, you established a correlation between space and time, so you therefore believe in the concept of “here.” Thus, you must also believe in the concept of “now.” Einstein replied, “That’s a pretty good answer.” I must admit that was one of my prouder moments—Einstein liking my analysis of a problem he was struggling with.

Marty Nemko: I must admit that such questions are over my head. I guess that explains why someone told me, “You’re no Einstein.”  Michael, you’re in your '80s. What key to the life well-led has become clearer to you in recent years?

Michael Scriven: That it’s important to divorce yourself from egotism, especially from materialism, and focus on serving others. Only if you do that, can you expect to achieve the most for the world.

Marty Nemko: But is achieving the most for the world the only valid metric? What about pleasure?

Michael Scriven: Serving others in a way that yields the greatest multiplicative effort is the metric that matters most—and it will give you great pleasure.

Marty Nemko: Have you practiced what you preach?

Michael Scriven: Well, I’m giving away 100% of my estate to the aforementioned foundation and I spend on very little.

Marty Nemko: You’ll never retire, I know. What’s your current big project?

Michael Scriven: In addition to running the Faster Forward Fund, teaching at Claremont, and giving lots of talks—like I’ll be giving the keynote on the ethics of evaluation at the European Evaluation Association Conference--I’m writing yet another book. This one I believe will be my magnum opus: The Nature of Evaluation, which attempts to teach critical thinking and ethics as well as evaluation in a book aimed at the educated general public.

Marty Nemko: Until that book is published, is there a book on critical thinking you’d recommend for my readers?

Michael Scriven: Intuition Pumps because it gives all sorts of examples of how we get manipulated because of our poor critical thinking. Examples are a great way to get people to improve.

Marty Nemko: What’s another piece of advice on how to live the life well-led?

Michael Scriven: Do realistic thinking about your career but when in doubt, jump off the train. There’s more room to make a difference and to feel special if you take a road less traveled.

Marty Nemko: But let’s say you’ve picked a career. These days it’s not easy to land a job. What would the Scriven way be?

Michael Scriven:  Connect with people with the power to hire you. Phone them, email them, attend their talks, whatever. Ask them what is lacking in the people they hire and how you might acquire that. Who knows, they might hire you or at least accept your offer to volunteer. If not, get that expertise and then come back to those people when you have it.

Marty Nemko: Michael, how about one more piece of life advice for us?.

Michael Scriven:  I’ll steal from Aristotle here. Don’t blame your life on your inherited characteristics. Your character is formed heavily on who you spend your time with. Don’t like your character? Spend time with people of more wisdom and whose core mission is to help others.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.