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I interviewed the wonderful,, who writes . This was a fun and fascinating convo. Mike is on a never ending quest to cultivate his curiosity and sense of wonder. And the witty, mesmerizing, unclassifiable dispatches he writes for his newsletter are testament to that fact. To me, Mike is one part scientist and one part folk art balladeer. In an era of rampant cynicism and bad faith actors, he is operating in a different dimension. Did I mention he lives in Scotland?
Folks, I really enjoyed this interview with Mike Sowden. And I hope you do too.
Quotes from our conversation
How the myth of the lone genius working in isolation is false
The science writer, who is also on Substack. He wrote a book called Where Good Ideas Come From. One of his working hypotheses is that we all just have fragments of ideas and there's this fairly ridiculous idea that the lone genius is the one that comes up with ideas, not the social network around them feeding in all these fragments of ideas that collide with whatever half baked notion they have.
On using science to generate emotions in readers
So with my newsletter, I've been getting really interested in just making people feel, the thing that I found very early on that I've really been trying to lean into has that moment of, wow, I never knew this thing existed just for a second. It's a science newsletter and therefore it's looking at the facts newsletter, but it's really about an emotional response newsletter. I'm trying to make people feel a little more interested in the good side of uncertainty.
On the perils of negativity bias and the need for positivity bias
Because of negativity bias, we are very much biased towards paying attention to the single one star review of our book as opposed to the 99 five star reviews. And that informs the news that we're served. Because news services have to look for what gets lots of readers. It's negativity bias, but we don't have a positivity bias. But we do get an enormous return on these tiny little amounts of joy. And sometimes it doesn't solve any of our problems, but it does make them more bearable.
Sari is so good at what she does. What she's doing with Oldster is incredible.
The pushback on Mike’s newsletter’s name
People say, everything is amazing. What a terrible name. You're saying that everything is amazing. It clearly isn't. And I have to say, that's not what I mean by everything is amazing. It means it has the capacity to surprise you and to be more interesting than you ever could have thought. And it could be interesting things and not positive things. You could be amazed that a car is just about to run you over.
On the joy of being the worst kind of explorer
I'm the absolute worst explorer. I was heavily influenced by Bill Bryson and lots of other self deprecating writers who were just very good at presenting incompetence.
On being a skeptical optimist about the human species
We're the mistake making species, but they're very good at getting themselves out of hot water, but they have to wait until the water is really hot. Rebecca Solnit's written about the power of hope in a political context and being very not hopeful in a passive sense. You can put yourself into action and you can be a skeptical optimist and really lean into the possibilities
On wanting to live a life imbued with wonder
I want to feel about my life the way that you feel when you walk into a library. For the first time, and there's all these books, and it's just this incredible body of knowledge that's created by all these people, and you have this moment of realizing, a little sadly, maybe, that you're never going to read everything in the library.
On writing as “self-archaeology” and looking outward to look inward
Twenty years ago, I did a, an archaeology degree and that was a BSC, so it's a Bachelor of Science. So I was taught these techniques of archaeology and history and. Essentially forensics, pollen analysis and tree rings and geomagnetic and geophysics. I think it allowed me to bring part of my past forward and write about these things. It's a “self archaeology.” So some people are writing. Absolutely beautiful work on Substack that is essentially it's memoir driven.
For example, you had. He uses it as a lens to talk about all these other things. I hope that he doesn't hear this. It'd be awful. But he's actually a really great writer. The way he writes is he uses this inward looking format as a way to look outwards. And I realized I'm using the outward looking format as a way to occasionally look inwards as well.
Mike Sowden recommends 3 newsletters
I think my first one would be my friendand her substack is . She is a sketcher, travel writer. She came onto Substack and she started doing illustrated essays. Even the words are illustrated. And she's been building an audience very quickly and it's based on a couple of illustrated essays she did for Longreads . The first one was called Home as a Cup of Tea and it was about her love of tea and the way that it enriches her life. So she used this as a template for doing these new illustrated essays on Substack and it's going really well.
I'd recommend’s newsletter . At one point he was part of the Hubble Space Telescope team. He's really good at what he does. He looks at astronomy, but he also just brings in all sorts of fascinating things. He's been really helpful as well for me.
So the third one would beand his newsletter He sends an essay out once a month, which is the thing that you are never going to hear people who are saying how to write a Substack, they're going to say, if you write once a month, you're dead. His stuff keeps getting featured because it's just so good. So it's the perfect testament of if you only write once a month and what you write is genuinely brilliant, then that's a great strategy for you.
Hi, I’m Gabe Hudson, and this is Kurt Vonnegut Radio, my newsletter and podcast. It’s free and for the people, but it’s also how I buy groceries. So please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $5/month or $50/year. You can also receive my eternal love by becoming a Lifetime Member at $150.
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