Harvard Polymath Noah Feldman — Deep Focus for Hyper-Productivity, Learning 10+ Languages, Predicting the Future with History, the Possibilities (and Limitations) of DAOs, Lessons from the Iraq Invasion, Designing the Supreme Court of Facebook, the Virtue of Scholarship, and the Wild Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (#540)

Illustration via 99designs

“If you can alternate power, you get a lot of good incentives for everyone treating everybody relatively well.”

Noah Feldman

Noah Feldman (@NoahRFeldman) is a Harvard professor, ethical philosopher and advisor, public intellectual, religious scholar and historian, and author of 10 books, including his latest, The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America.

Noah is the founder of Ethical Compass, which helps clients like Facebook and eBay improve ethical decision-making by creating and implementing new governance solutions. Noah conceived and designed the Facebook Oversight Board and continues to advise Facebook on ethics and governance issues.

Feldman is host of the Deep Background podcast, a policy and public affairs columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, and a former contributing writer for The New York Times. He served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and subsequently advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of Iraq’s interim constitution.

He earned his A.B. summa cum laude from Harvard, finishing first in his class. Selected as a Rhodes Scholar, he earned a DPhil from Oxford University, writing his dissertation on Aristotle’s Ethics. He received his JD from Yale Law School and clerked for Justice David Souter of the US Supreme Court.

He is the author of 10 books, including Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem — and What We Should Do About It; What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building; Cool War: The United States, China, and the Future of Global Competition; Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices; and The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#540: Harvard Polymath Noah Feldman — Deep Focus for Hyper-Productivity, Learning 10+ Languages, Predicting the Future with History, the Possibilities (and Limitations) of DAOs, Lessons from the Iraq Invasion, Designing the Supreme Court of Facebook, the Virtue of Scholarship, and the Wild Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Dig conversations with polymaths? Then you’ll want to hear the conversation I had with the Polymath of Polymaths, Stewart Brand. Lend an ear to the episode in which we discussed the Whole Earth Catalog’s sentiment of “stay hungry; stay foolish,” influencing civilization by changing its tools rather than trying to reshape human nature, artificial intelligence vs. intelligence augmentation, addressing the idea of de-extinction and the woolly mammoth in the room, bioabundance, how Stewart lost 30 pounds at age 75, the rewards of being a pack rat, and much more.

#281: Stewart Brand – The Polymath of Polymaths
  • Connect with Noah Feldman:

Website | Twitter | Bloomberg | Facebook | Instagram | Harvard


  • Noah is fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and French. He can speak and read conversational Korean, read Aramaic, Latin, some Greek, Spanish, Italian, and German. How did this happen? Where did this start? [07:02]
  • Dispelling a common myth: you don’t need to start learning a language as a child to become fluent. How did picking up Arabic in his teens change Noah’s universe? [13:13]
  • How did Noah and his parents come to live in Egypt during his early life? [15:34]
  • Who was Dr. Wilson Bishai, and how did Noah come to learn modern colloquial Arabic from him? [17:05]
  • What does the spectrum of Arabic look like? [22:01]
  • Exploring the algorithm of “al.” [25:42]
  • What does Al Qaeda mean, and how did it get its name? [29:38]
  • How does Noah live a life so full without the benefit of caffeine? Perhaps most important: why? [31:06]
  • How does Noah structure his time in a way that this full life doesn’t become an overwhelmed life? [33:01]
  • Why did Noah think he was failing at therapy when he first started going in his late thirties, and what did that look like? What perspectives had to change for him to start “succeeding” at therapy? [36:05]
  • How long has Noah used voice recognition software as part of his time management system, and what prompted him to adopt it in the first place? [40:19]
  • What voice recognition software does Noah use today, and what best practices does he recommend for optimally benefiting from this technology? [42:36]
  • An example of how a column Noah wrote went from concept to first and final draft, and how he supported its premise with proof. [45:10]
  • Comparing the interpretation of scripture and the interpretation of the US Constitution prior to the abolition of slavery. [49:15]
  • With an undergrad in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, why did Noah decide to go to law school? [51:38]
  • LLB (Legum Baccalaureus) vs. JB (Juris Doctor). [54:29]
  • What forces or people contributed to Noah’s decision to go to law school? [56:05]
  • How did Noah’s dad instill morals in him? What positive and negative reinforcements were most effective? [58:54]
  • Noah talks about the three months he lived in the Iraqi Republican Palace’s kitchen, got shot at, et cetera. [1:03:31]
  • Things that one should be advised against doing when invading a country, and what constitutes a need to rely on certain people “even if they’re not trustworthy.” [1:11:00]
  • What is a constitution, what circumstances need to exist for one to be drafted, and what considerations must be contemplated? [1:15:25]
  • A modern constitution that Noah finds well-suited to the time and place it was drafted, and an important thing to remember: even the best, most beautiful or elegant constitution can’t solve every problem. [1:21:47]
  • To know what will happen in crypto, you need to know how constitutions work and how they fail. [1:25:00]
  • Why Noah is appreciative of Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin’s ongoing contributions to the crypto space. [1:28:15]
  • How does having an understanding of history allow someone to be a futurist? [1:30:24]
  • Recommended reading for people who want to learn more about the process of creating constitutions. [1:34:52]
  • What are DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), and what does Noah find promising about them? [1:40:40]
  • What I find promising about DAOs. [1:43:30]
  • Questions about humanity’s ability to work collectively and solve problems that DAO experiments may be able to answer better than previous real-world attempts. [1:45:55]
  • The pros and cons of uneditable smart contracts on a blockchain. [1:49:29]
  • What prompted Noah to write The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America? [1:52:23]
  • How Lincoln’s story fits into addressing the Constitution’s most glaring flaws regarding who gets to enjoy its lofty conceits of freedom and equality. [1:54:31]
  • Is the Constitution meant to be a moral blueprint? [2:01:37]
  • What does world peace mean? It depends on who you ask. But what if it’s summed up best by the word compromise? [2:03:42]
  • Two kinds of compromise: real aspiration and waffling. [2:05:39]
  • People Noah considers particularly adept at crafting productive compromise. [2:09:31]
  • Who was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and why does Noah find him interesting? [2:11:07]
  • For all of his accomplishments, the Yankee from Olympus had plenty of non-admirable characteristics. [2:16:42]
  • Why hasn’t Noah written about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. yet? [2:18:56]
  • Did the Iroquois Confederacy have any impact on the Constitution? [2:20:49]
  • Experiments in governance and big tech Noah is looking forward to seeing played out (like the so-called Supreme Court of Facebook), and what their success or failure might look like. [2:23:59]
  • Foreseeable common mistakes that Noah thinks people should avoid when trying to create boards that oversee big tech companies. [2:29:45]
  • How legitimacy might operate as currency to drive a company’s compliance with its oversight board. [2:33:29]
  • Another ongoing experiment Noah is watching with constant fascination. [2:35:58]
  • Parting thoughts. [2:38:12]


“There’s actually nothing more frustrating in life than hearing someone speak a language that you don’t speak because you know there’s a whole universe going on there. For me, the impulse to decode is to sort of get behind there and to know what’s going on underneath.”
— Noah Feldman

“Is our whole system, from the Constitution on, fundamentally ruined by having racism and slavery in its DNA from the start? Or can we be a lot more optimistic about our capacities as a country by virtue of progress that we’ve made since our Declaration of Independence was written by a slaveholder and our Constitution was drafted primarily by a slaveholder at a convention where slaveholding states had a huge amount of influence?
— Noah Feldman

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery because imitation shows you that other people think something is working.”
— Noah Feldman

“Transparency drives transparency, and giving reasons drives legitimacy. Nontransparency, or failure to give reasons, detracts from legitimacy.”
— Noah Feldman

“Almost no constitutions in the modern world are totally invented from scratch.”
— Noah Feldman

“If you can alternate power, you get a lot of good incentives for everyone treating everybody relatively well.”
— Noah Feldman

“When you learn a language, it puts you in the thought world of the people who speak it, and you no longer are seeing them as an outsider, imagining what they might think when they speak to themselves. But you’re actually a participant.”
— Noah Feldman


A note on the word quilombo:

Tim and Noah didn’t know the complex history of this word when they did the episode. Since then they’ve learned much more, including its apparent Kimbundu origin and subsequent use in Portuguese in relation to settlements of formerly enslaved people. If they had known all this, Tim and Noah would have noted it and engaged the word very differently. Language isn’t just complicated—it has pitfalls!

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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6 Replies to “Harvard Polymath Noah Feldman — Deep Focus for Hyper-Productivity, Learning 10+ Languages, Predicting the Future with History, the Possibilities (and Limitations) of DAOs, Lessons from the Iraq Invasion, Designing the Supreme Court of Facebook, the Virtue of Scholarship, and the Wild Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (#540)”

  1. I know this is a long shot but thought I’d try. I’d love to get my message out there and my story.

    It’s a message we as men steer away from or don’t talk about but I feel it’s a story we have to talk about!!

    I’d love the opportunity lease chat and if you’ll have me possibly be on your show. This isn’t about me this is about helping millions of men who have been abused physically mentally emotionally and sexually especially in their youth.

    Here’s a link to my new book on this subject matter.

    [Moderator: name of book and link redacted.]

  2. Tim Ferriss,
    I can honestly say a better human stepped in my place after waking from an LSD trip alone in my house for the first time ever, 6 years ago. Since then, most all I’ve done is study the fuck out of what it is that occurred in my head. You are as cool as the 5 people you surround yourself with. You, Andrew, Matt, Fadiman, McKenna, Pollan, damn, that’s 6. Written 5 of these dudes, reluctantly ending my letter with, “I don’t want it to end up like Enimen´s Stan Song. They, like you, have given me along with plant medicine, a Language to My Emotions. I live outside Mexico City, with my horse in my yard. Ozzy´s song Dreamer, constantly plays in my head, I love it, I just don’t want to continue dreaming my life away. Everything I’ve dreamed for is here before me, ready to slay. Went through a lot to get here… here it comes… My story will be worth your while.
    Sleepless in Mexico, wanting to change how Mexicans View Psychedelics,
    Alex Artigas
    P.S. No website, I’ve yet to learn the intricacies of the World Wide Web.

  3. Hi Tim !

    Thanks for letting us ask you some questions.

    First I would like to say that your story is very inspiring !

    I am an entrepreneur in ecommerce and I am trying to set up a sustainable business.

    I read your book to gain ideas and knowledge.

    Today I wanted to ask you one specific question : How do you succeed in selling a product 8 or 10 times higher than the price you bought/made it ?

    I am finding that very difficult.

    Thank you very much.

    Best regards.

    Axel Cherprenet

  4. Good day! Just an inquiry, would you be amenable for a guest post collaboration about ML & AI? We can send topics hereafter.

  5. This is such a fascinating conversation, and with so many different subjects that gets so beautifully dissected and discussed, it just gets the listener deeply hooked. The power of knowing multiple languages and how by learning a new language empowers us to see a whole new world. When we step into a different culture and community knowing their language we get to see a different perspective which otherwise gets blocked or filtered in the process of translation, such a strong advise for everyone to learn new language. It has inspired me to pick up one language, I am doing so with French now…

    Though it is easy to learn when we are young and there is always a perception of difficulty to learning new foreign language but there is an art and science to learning language. There are formulas and there are kind of algorithms that can make it is easy and make it fast for us to get hold of new language. We change as a person, the moment we have a new langauge in our armoury, we just don’t appreciate the power of learning a new language. How traveling becomes such important aspect of learning, and how it amplifies our learning when are exploring and traveling places.

    It is so beautifully exemplified by Noah, and as always Tim brings such nuanced dimensions through his brilliant way of questioning, such depth and detailing in his research work, it keeps us as listener in constant awe and wonder.

    Just not the language, the way the idea of constitution is dwelled and dealt makes it so intriguing, why it is so significant and how it gets created, what is the relationship between the scripture of religion and the constitution of a state. It is so much in our interpretation, langauge plays such a vital part, we simply cannot keep it apart. We simply have to learn the art. There is this interesting discussion on personal productivity of Noah, he is exceptionally brilliant and how is able to do so many different tasks from podcasts to books, does so with such elegance, what is the secret sauce behind such powerful productivity – the vioce recognition software for time management and how tools play such a vital role if we learn and know how to use them effectively.

    We can get so much more insights when we listen this podcast few more times, first time we miss out on many things but we do for the second or third time we catch those finer points that points deep into our purpose and meaning of life…