Lessons from Dan Carlin

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lessonsfrom / Monday

Dan Carlin is the host of the Hardcore History and Common Sense podcasts. Despite only putting out 2-3 shows every year, he has a fierce following and you will rarely find him outside the top 20 podcasts on Apple’s podcast rankings. He’s tackled issues ranging from the the rise and fall of the Mongol empire to the paradigm shift in warfare that was World War I. Sometimes, he approaches niche issues like that of ‘Painfotainment’, the behavior of deriving pleasure from the pain of others happening on a civic scale. In his often 3hr shows, he really dives deep into topics so there is much to learned in terms of meta-lessons. Here are 3 that stick out to me:

Interesting things happens at the extreme

My average day doesn’t really tell you a lot about my personality and my values. I wake up, I do work, I read, I eat, I hang out with friends, and I sleep. That’s not interesting at all!

Contrary to that, let’s say I have something important coming up. This could be a meeting with someone very accomplished that I want to learn from and cultivate a relationship with. I am going to prepare for that, and the intensity with which I prepare and how I prioritize different things to make time to prepare tells you a lot about me as a person at this point in my life.

This is a cute example but this is exactly what Dan does. He talks about the outliers. The people who have been in the trenches of southern France for more than a 100 days, with their legs literally rotting away. What do they think? When everything is on the line, how do you react? What are the trade-offs you make?

This is a huge part of what makes even his 6hr shows gripping. He’ll take you on a journey inside a person’s head who is living a life many standard deviations away from your mean human experience.

Empathize with historical figures to understand them

One of the best shows Dan has ever done is The Destroyer of Worlds about the nuclear threat. In this episode, he talks about how during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the deciding factors could be the fact that one side had been able to get more sleep than the other. That could have been the edge because they were spending so many sleepless nights in a row fixated to incoming intelligence and making stratagems.

We often see leaders like JFK and other popular historical figures without scrutiny and almost infallible. But even they have basic human needs – things like sleep. I thought it was an extremely empathetic lens to see the conflict with. Most look at the politics and the chess maneuvers but to look at it on the individual level – with the weight of possibly the whole world on their shoulders – the statesmen on both sides continued on.

Own yourself

Perhaps the greatest lesson that one can learn from Dan is that he is uncompromising on his format and the time it takes him to put something out. Most people would say something like “Get the hell outta here!” to a 6hr show that takes 4 months about niche topics in history.

But Dan owns what he does best, and through the leverage provided by the internet reaches an audience of millions who wait patiently as the next episode comes. Many go back to the archives and re-listening to the meticulously woven narratives and mind-bending hypotheticals.

What Dan does is incredible, and I hope you take time out to listen to his shows and if you like it, consider buying some of the archives that help support his productions.

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