[Podcast] Claire Lehmann: Building an Internet Media Company — North Star Podcast
[Podcast] Claire Lehmann: Building an Internet Media Company — North Star Podcast

[Podcast] Claire Lehmann: Building an Internet Media Company — North Star Podcast

My notes on a conversation between Claire Lehmann and David Perell.

Claire's (@clairlemon) background: Claire is the founder and editor-in-chief of Quillette, a for-profit online magazine that publishes essays on topics like politics, science, and academia.

David's (@David_Perell) background: David is known as “The Writing Guy” on Twitter. He has an online writing school called Write of Passage, writes two weekly newsletters – Monday Musings and Friday Finds. He also hosts the North Star Podcast.


I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, wellness, better thinking, building a company and other interesting stuff I find online.

1:31 Why Claire believes being a for-profit instead of a non-profit gives her and her company more freedom.

It makes the mission a little bit simpler.

Quillette's business model relies on donation (they have thousands of donators every month).

They don't have to worry about not offending big donors because they rely on small individual donations. They keep their freedom this way.

Idea from Basecamp: Building a static business.

  • You want to have a static business.

How does the supply chain of Quillette work?

  • They publish a lot of articles through the pitch they receive.
  • They have a wide network of contributors and writor that work for Quillette

5:32 What Quillette has learned through publishing so many submitted articles over the years.

Avoiding polemic articles is a good thing for the long term. You develop a more moderate, you develop a civilized culture.

Why is it a challenging thing for media outlets to avoid publishing polemic articles?

  • A lot of media has been chasing revenue trough advertising model.
  • Material like that can get a lot of page views very quickly.
  • But the strategy to chase page views is bad over the long term.

Quillette gets a lot of traffic for older articles, because a lot of material they publish is evergreen.

When you publish evergreen content, you get many clicks but over a longer time horizon.

10:15 The relationship between free speech and innovation.

Claire doesn't have the answer to that, but if you look at history, the societies and the cultures where free speech have been valued tend to be more innovative.

Institutions that promote innovations rely on feedback. Having free speech is important, because we don't know when we're wrong. Unless I give the freedom to people to tell me when I'm wrong, I will never know.

Freedom of expression helps people correct themselves when they're wrong.

Claire would be surprised if innovation could flourish very long when free speech is hindered.

13:12 What we can learn from how Russia handled scientific experimentation and their lack of freedom to critique it.

The Soviet Union poured a lot of money and efforts into scientific projects. But when you put inhibition to criticize freely, it inhibits the truth.

Unless you give people the freedom to criticize people who are in a place of authority, big projects that rely on data and truth are going to suffer.

15:08 Why one of the biggest flaws Claire sees with higher education is that it seems necessary for people to go.

A big problem with universities is that too many people go.

Claire thinks that a lot of people don't need to go to university.

The results of too many people going to university is credential inflation: a degree means less.

It uses up people's time, it's a massive opportunity cost.

People could be starting businesses, and instead are wasting time and money.

The inflation of credentials is bad for social mobility.

Everyone should have the opportunity to go, but it shouldn't be a requirement.

Education and college are not synonyms, college is a way to get an education, but it is not education. — David Perell

We need to split the university into:

  • People who want to get a job
  • People who want to get the more traditional university education

The problem right now is that we're training corporate people who are spending too much money at school to justify the lack of return on investment to study anything else than business or something that's going to get you a job.

20:17 How higher education is only creating academics and not lifelong students.

How to learn philosophy at a high level? It's very hard to do so without aiming for becoming an academic.

Why have we lost the concept of lifelong learning in education? Where did it go? Who destroyed it?

We've conflated lifelong learning with credentialism. It's not worth it unless you have a certificate to put on the wall. — Claire Lehmann

23:32 Why organizations may have a lifecycle and how it plays into the problems that come with their extended growth.

The problem with bureaucracy is how big it gets. If a bureaucracy gets to large, the service are in the charge of the bureaucracy.

The larger an organization gets, the more risk-averse it gets, and the more suboptimal people get in.

Maybe organizations have lifecycles.

29:45 Why Claire believes literacy in subjects like psychology and statistics is massively underrated.

True or false: psychology as a field of study is overrated, but psychology as a lens to look at other industries is underrated?

It's false for Claire:

  • Really good field of study
  • Research design, and statistics are underrated
  • The content in textbooks is overrated, you don't need to learn about older studies because a lot of them couldn't be replicated.
  • Having statistical literacy is very important, especially in this era where we're flooded with so much information and we need to be able to distinguish between noise and signal.

What aspects of psychology are under-studied?

Claire is a fan of evolutionary psychology:

  • Understanding why certain behaviors exist is very helpful for self awareness.
  • Evolutionary Psychology is the "why" of behavior (cognitive psychology is the "what" of a behavior)
  • Cross-cultural psychology is under-studied.

Are we going to a world so globalized that we won't be able to do these cross-cultural studies anymore?

Claire thinks we've reached peak homogenization in the early 2000s, and we're going back to a more localized, balkanized world.

34:55 What Enlightenment-era values are justly held in high regard, and which we may need to reconsider in the modern age.

We should use rationality and reason to guide our decision, but in knocking down tradition we might not fully understand what tradition was there for in the first place.

It's important to acknowledge that tradition exist for reasons that we might not understand.

We don't have the knowledge to understand why traditions were built up overtime, and what problems they were originally solving.

This tempers the rationalist view.

There's a lot of tacit wisdom that we get from history through traditions.

We're so focused on the individual that we forget that there are all this traditions made to help society function well. By getting rid of them, our society can fall apart.

40:54 The historical reasons why intellectualism is not a strong value in Australia.

Australia doesn't have an intellectual culture.

"We are rich and we are dumb" — Claire Lehmann

There's a great weather, people spend a lot of time outside, and not a lot of time reading.

Australia relies on the mining industry, and is not very into innovation.

The country is "too lucky" and earns money too easily (climate, natural environment), people can have a good time just by going outside.

The other reason is that Australia is isolated.

43:46 What Claire has learned about childhood education through her time at Quillette, and why she believes younger children need to spend most of their time learning facts.

Claire learned that in the early years, children should be taught facts.

When they're older they're older they can synthesize those facts.

Focusing on critical thinking in primary school is a waste of time.

Children need factual knowledge to base their critical thinking later on.

Claire is skeptical towards the new ways of education focusing only on creativity without factual knowledge.

Why facts are so important?

  • The young brain is a sponge for facts
  • You have an infinite storage facility when you're young

51:04 Why standardized testing is beneficial for children from underprivileged families.

Claire is pro standardized testing: it's the best tool we have for disadvantaged kids.

But these tests don't always show the potential of people.

Children from privilege families have so many opportunities, but you don't have these opportunities when you're from an underprivileged family.

For Jefferson: There will always be elites in a society, but the elite shouldn't stay the same from generation to generation, because this way, the wealthy would overtake the political and they would shape the political for the wealthy. He wanted churn in the elites.

Because of the regression to the mean, there's a natural churn in elites.

55:37 What Claire believes to be her strengths in both her personal and business life.

Claire is good at filtering out the trivial.

She doesn't have attention to detail, and she focused on the bigger picture. It's both a strength and a weakness.

She was an avid reader as a kid, and always had an affinity for fashion and cultural trends.

58:12 What about the book "The Custom And The Country" makes Claire love it so much.

The Custom And The Country is an underrated novel. The main character is an antiheroine she's a female sociopath, and there aren't a lot of female sociopath in literature.

It's a commentary on money and materialism.

1:01:42 What it may mean for our brains as we possibly move into a "post-literate" society.

One of the reason podcast is so popular is that it's more natural to us to listen than to read.

We have to learn to read, it doesn't necessarily comes naturally.

What do people outside of Australia can learn from Australia?

  • Egalitarianism
  • they don't use every opportunity to make money
  • Understanding that things can be shared

1:05:03 Claire's favorite articles she's ever hosted on Quillette.

When they first started, there was a theme coming through about progressivism, and certain political positions whithin the academia being akin to religious impulse.

Now, it's almost a cliché to say that universities are almost like churches.

David found more interesting people on Quillette, than on any other site (except Twitter.)

Here are two great articles from Quillette:

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I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, wellness, better thinking, building a company and other interesting stuff I find online.