Noah Feldman on Hyper-Productivity, Learning 10+ Languages, DAOs, Using History to Become a Futurist, Crypto Constitutions, State Building, and The Supreme Court of Facebook (#540)

Noah Feldman on Hyper-Productivity, Learning 10+ Languages, DAOs, Using History to Become a Futurist, Crypto Constitutions, State Building, and The Supreme Court of Facebook (#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 AB 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.

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#540: Noah Feldman on Hyper-Productivity, Learning 10+ Languages, DAOs, Using History to Become a Futurist, Crypto Constitutions, State Building, and The Supreme Court of Facebook

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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


Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added.

  • 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?
  • 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?
  • How did Noah and his parents come to live in Egypt during his early life?
  • Who was Dr. Wilson Bishai, and how did Noah come to learn modern colloquial Arabic from him?
  • What does the spectrum of Arabic look like?
  • Exploring the algorithm of “al.”
  • What does Al Qaeda mean, and how did it get its name?
  • How does Noah live a life so full without the benefit of caffeine? Perhaps most important: why?
  • How does Noah structure his time in a way that this full life doesn’t become an overwhelmed life?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • What voice recognition software does Noah use today, and what best practices does he recommend for optimally benefiting from this technology?
  • An example of how a column Noah wrote went from concept to first and final draft, and how he supported its premise with proof.
  • Comparing the interpretation of scripture and the interpretation of the US Constitution prior to the abolition of slavery.
  • With an undergrad in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, why did Noah decide to go to law school?
  • LLB (Legum Baccalaureus) vs. JB (Juris Doctor).
  • What forces or people contributed to Noah’s decision to go to law school?
  • How did Noah’s dad instill morals in him? What positive and negative reinforcements were most effective?
  • Noah talks about the three months he lived in the Iraqi Republican Palace’s kitchen, got shot at, et cetera.
  • 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.”
  • What is a constitution, what circumstances need to exist for one to be drafted, and what considerations must be contemplated?
  • 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.
  • To know what will happen in crypto, you need to know how constitutions work and how they fail.
  • Why Noah is appreciative of Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin’s ongoing contributions to the crypto space.
  • How does having an understanding of history allow someone to be a futurist?
  • Recommended reading for people who want to learn more about the process of creating constitutions.
  • What are DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), and what does Noah find promising about them?
  • What I find promising about DAOs.
  • 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.
  • The pros and cons of uneditable smart contracts on a blockchain.
  • What prompted Noah to write The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America?
  • 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.
  • Is the Constitution meant to be a moral blueprint?
  • What does world peace mean? It depends on who you ask. But what if it’s summed up best by the word compromise?
  • Two kinds of compromise: real aspiration and waffling.
  • People Noah considers particularly adept at crafting productive compromise.
  • Who was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and why does Noah find him interesting?
  • For all of his accomplishments, the Yankee from Olympus had plenty of non-admirable characteristics.
  • Why hasn’t Noah written about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. yet?
  • Did the Iroquois Confederacy have any impact on the Constitution?
  • 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.
  • Foreseeable common mistakes that Noah thinks people should avoid when trying to create boards that oversee big tech companies.
  • How legitimacy might operate as currency to drive a company’s compliance with its oversight board.
  • Another ongoing experiment Noah is watching with constant fascination.
  • Parting thoughts.


“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 slave holder and our Constitution was drafted primarily by a slave holder at a convention where slave-holding 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. Non-transparency, or failure to give reasons, detract 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


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