From the dumpster fire

The finest handpicked things from the stinking and burning dumpster fire that is the interweb.

We are dying every day

We’re all going to die edition

It was a beautiful Thursday morning in the smelly, water-starved, garbage-ridden, gridlocked, treeless garden city that is Namma Bengaluru. I woke up, finished sculpting my lats, headed to my favorite coffee shop, and got myself a steaming cup of hot filter coffee.

I parked myself in the empty space in front of the hotel, took out my phone, and then started doom-scrolling. I was also thinking about what to write over the weekend. I had no shortage of ideas, but none of them inappropriately grabbed my imagination.

I scrolled through my Twitter feed for a bit, got tired of the public toilet vibes, and then opened the Substack app. I started scrolling while saving a few articles to never read them again later. Then a post by the amazing Brian Klaas popped up in the feed. He had shared this article with the provocative title “An optimist’s guide to dying.” My imagination was appropriately grabbed.

The article was written by Simon Boas, the Executive Director of Jersey Overseas Aid. I assumed Jersey was the American state of New Jersey, but I was wrong. Jersey is a self-governing island near France. From what I could gather online, Simon has lived a wonderful life.

First of all, I take comfort from the thought that I’ve had a really good – almost charmed – life. (I’ll start this piece with the boasting, in the hope you will have forgiven or forgotten it by the end.) I have dined with lords and billionaires, and broken bread with the poorest people on earth. I have accomplished prodigious feats of drinking. I have allocated and for several years personally delivered at least a hundred million pounds’ worth of overseas aid. I have been a Samaritan and a policeman, and got off an attempted-murder charge in Vietnam (trumped up, to extract a bribe) by singing karaoke in a brothel.

Last August, Simon was diagnosed with throat cancer, and he had written about how he took the bad news. The article I read was published in February of this year, and in that article, he shared that, despite the aggressive treatment, the cancer has spread to his lungs.

The article is not a lament about death but a celebration of life. It’s a poetic meditation on a life worth living. I understand these are weird words to describe an article about death, but I’m sure you will feel the same once you have read it. It takes a special kind of bravery and equanimity to think about the good life you had when you know for a fact that you will die soon.

Reading the article didn’t make me think about the fact that I would die one day, but rather about my inordinate good fortune. I smiled, and a weird and fuzzy feeling that I can only describe as awe, reverence, and gratitude washed over me as I read Simon’s philosophical words.

And finally, the thought I keep coming back to is how lucky it is to have lived at all. To exist is to have won the lottery. In fact, there are so many bits of extraordinarily-unlikely good luck that have occurred just for us to be born, that it’s like hitting the jackpot every day of the year. Consider some of them.

There is something rather than nothing. The laws of physics, the strengths of forces, the mass of an electron, are poised precisely so that stars and planets can form. Inanimate stardust somehow combined to become self-replicating, and then somehow developed further into eukaryotic, complex life. And then complex life didn’t just stop at ferns and fishes, but evolved into creatures that were aware of their conditions. Matter became conscious of itself.

We don’t think about just how fucking lucky we are to be alive here, now, in this moment.

Simon’s post reminded me of something the poetic physicist Alan Lightman said about where the matter that makes us came from on the EconTalk Podcast. I heard this episode at the beginning of the new year, and I haven’t stopped thinking about how Lightman described the sheer improbability of our existence. If you rewind the story of humanity, you can go all the way back to the Big Bang. So, in essence, you and I are astounding improbabilities 13.8 billion years in the making.

Think about this for a second.

13.8 billion years ago, there was a big bang. Hydrogen and helium, the first elements that were created after the Big Bang, fused together to form the first generation of stars. These stars had a short life and exploded, sprinkling the elements required for life, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, and magnesium, across the universe.

Then, about 4.6 billion years ago, a giant cloud of dust collapsed under its own gravity. As the cloud began to spin, the core became so hot and dense that it triggered a nuclear fusion, giving birth to our sun. Over a period of time, the remaining particles of dust and ice clumped together, and planets, including Earth, formed.

Then, about 3.5–4 billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had cooled enough for oceans to emerge and for complex chemical reactions to be triggered. We don’t yet know how, but the earliest forms of life emerged around this time. Fast forward billions of years, and we evolved from monkeys to humans. Of those humans, your mom and dad decided to meet and then have sex. Of the hundreds of millions of eggs and sperm released by your parents, one pair joined together to form the creature that’s reading this piece.

“Then, about 3.5–4 billion years ago, the Earth’s surface had cooled enough for oceans to form and set the stage for complex chemical reactions. While we don’t yet know exactly how, the earliest forms of life emerged around this time. Fast forward through millions of years of evolutionary history, Homo sapiens diverged from other primates, leading to the species we now call humans. Of those humans, your mom and dad decided to meet and have sex. Of the hundreds of millions of sperm and the single egg released during that cycle, one pair joined together to form the creature reading this.”

Saying that human life is a freak cosmic accident is like saying water is wet.

I haven’t lived enough to understand what death means or how to even think about it. I know the dictionary meaning of death, but I don’t know what it truly means. I have seen a couple of my grandparents die up close, but I was too young to understand the true gravity of what that meant.

Merriam-Webster

Apart from my grandparents, I’ve had the inordinate privilege of not losing loved ones yet. The closest I came to staring death in the face was during COVID, when both my parents were seriously ill. But even in that moment, I don’t think I had the maturity to understand what was happening or what it meant. When the hospital asked me to sign some waivers, I remember feeling blank. It might be because the stench of death was so thick in the air all around the world, or maybe I have a screw loose in my head.

But after reading Simon’s meditation on a life worth living, I thought about what comes to mind when I think or read about death. I haven’t lived, loved, or lost enough to write about death. But I understand that is something I must grapple with. So whenever I hear wise people say something interesting about death, I make a mental note, and I wanted to share a few of those.

Memento mori and premeditatio malorum

As you may have noticed, I’ve been trying to learn a little about philosophy. Stoicism is one of the philosophies I discovered on this journey. Stoicism originated sometime around the third century BCE in Greece. While I was writing this post, I came across the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. It turns out he’s an expert on all things stoicism and has written several books on it.

In one of the first videos I watched by him, he shared this wicked quote from Epictetus:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus was a slave who got his freedom and became a central figure in Stoicism. This quote gives you an inkling about the way stoics thought about death. I had heard Professor Pigliucci talk more about the stoic approach to death, but I had forgotten it. So I did some googling and found a few things. In this podcast, he beautifully explains how stoics thought about death:

Let me tell you, “memento mori” is again from Latin, and it doesn’t mean “remember you’re immortal,” it means “remember you’re going to die.” Now, when you say that to people, it’s like, “What the hell? No! Why are you telling me? I know that, but I don’t want to think about it.” But in fact, it helps a lot, at least it helps me and helps a lot of people.

So when I was younger, I actually was kind of obsessed with my own death, and not in a good way. I was, you know, the thought was going there often, and it was not a pleasant thought, and sometimes it actually got in the way of me doing things. Since I started practicing Stoicism, little by little, things changed. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t fear death or that, you know, I’m looking forward to it. The hell with that! No, I’m not looking forward to it. I want to live as long as life is possible, as much as it is a healthy life, an active life, one when I can actually do things, right?

But at the same time, it does help me do what the Stoics refer to as the “premeditation on death,” and there are different ways of doing it. My favorite is actually to go to a cemetery from time to time, just on purpose, go to a cemetery. There is one, a really neat, nice one in lower Manhattan, right up by Wall Street, and it’s in the middle of the city. So it’s in the middle of chaos, but it’s an island of peace in there.

And what do you do? You go there from time to time, on purpose, and then you very carefully sort of look around, walk very slowly, pay attention to the names, the dates of people, and so on and so forth, and think about the fact that one of these days, you’re going to join that crowd, that one of these days, it’s going to be you. And then you think, so before that time comes, what do I want to do with the time that I have, right?

So it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that is, you use a meditation on death to renew your urgency for life, right? So whenever I come out of a cemetery after I’ve left, after having done this kind of meditation, which takes some, you know, as much time as you want, sometimes 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever. If it is a large cemetery, you might want to walk around for an hour. It’s a nice way to stroll around anyway.

But every time that I came out of it, I said, “Okay, well, I need to get back to writing. I need to get back to teaching. I need to get back to, you know, interacting with my wife and my daughter, because those are the important things in life for me, right?” And so, it’s a way to renew your enthusiasm for life, to kind of reset things. It’s like, “Oh, I’m aware that that’s gonna happen one of these days. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s only a matter of when.” So in the meantime, I might as well enjoy and do the best that I can with whatever life I have.

As I understand it, there are two concepts in stoicism called memento mori and premeditatio malorum.

In ancient Rome, whenever military generals achieved great victories, slaves or attendants would whisper “memento mori,” which means remember, you must die. It is an exercise to remind oneself that death is around the corner.

Premeditatio malorum is an exercise in contemplating all the good and bad things that could happen to you, including your own death. It was an exercise for the stoics to prepare themselves for all eventualities so that they weren’t surprised when something happened. They premediated so that they could endure both misfortune and good fortune with equanimity. It was a way for them to prepare themselves for the trials and tribulations of life and not be blindsided.

It’s fine

I watched this brilliant conversation between Ricky Gervais, who’s one of my favorite comedians, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins a while ago. Both Gervais and Dawkins talk about death in various parts of the conversation, but one moment in particular stuck with me:

Richard Wiseman: I think many people in the public see atheists as having this reputation for being a little bit down on the world and a little bit pessimistic. Are you, I mean, we’re living in quite a difficult time at the moment. Are you optimistic? Are you optimistic about the future?

Ricky Gervais: Well, I don’t know. I’m happy. I’ve always been happy. I’ve always tried to get the most out of life. I worked out early on that that was the shortcut. I wanted, I just wanted to be happy. I did that first and then decided how I was going to sort of make a living. Am I optimistic? I mean, I’ve got nothing to fear. I look at this bit like a holiday. We don’t exist for thirteen and a half billion years. Then we exist for 80, 90, 100 years if we’re lucky, and you experience everything. It’s amazing.

I mean, it’s amazing to be alive. The chances of us being here as us, that sperm hitting that egg, is four hundred trillion to one. It’s incredible that we’re here, you know, and then we die, never to exist again, you know. And then some people even get offended by me saying that. They say things like, “You don’t know that. I’ll probably live again.” Someone said on Twitter once to me, “Why don’t you pray just in case there’s a god?” And I said, “Why don’t you put garlic over your door just in case there’s a Dracula?”

[Death] I imagine it’s like the thirteen and a half billion years before we were born and that was fine.

This is similar to what Simon writes. It reminded me of a Seneca quote that I read in Professor Pigliucci’s post:

Whatever existed before us was death. What does it matter whether you cease to be, or never begin? The outcome of either is just this, that you don’t exist.

Who put me here?

In the chapter on existentialism in the book From Socrates to Sartre, the author, Professor T.Z. Lavine, quotes the French polymath Blaise Pascal:

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?

Again, it’s similar to what both Simon and Ricky Gervais say. Making sense of one’s existence is not a modern preoccupation. People have been thinking about it since the dawn of time.

Benevolent evil

The other thing I remembered is a childhood story from the amazing Daniel Kahneman, who passed away recently:

In one experience I remember vividly, there was a rich range of shades. It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers.

As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.

It’s a vivid example of how death can sneak up on us.

What’s the point of it all?

I watched this haunting yet profound and beautiful short documentary about philosopher Herbert Fingarette, who passed away in 2018. It was shot by Fingarette’s grandson, Andrew Hasse.

In the video, the wizened philosopher grapples with existential themes like the meaning of life, love, loss, and waiting for death. What’s noteworthy is that Fingarette had written a book on death in which he said it’s irrational to be afraid of death because you’re not going to suffer. In the video, he says that he was wrong. I guess his perspective changed since he was so close to death.

The video captures the difficulty of accepting death, even if you are a philosopher who’s written a book on the topic.


Go and live a life worth living.

See you next week.

Between the shits and giggles

The Bill Burr edition

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Burr’s conversation with Neal Brennan popped up on my podcast feed. Bill is a goddamn genius and one of my favorite comedians ever. I hadn’t watched his comedy or heard his podcasts in a while, so I’ve been bingeing on his podcast episodes and videos ever since.

He has this beautiful ability to dance around touchy topics, poke fun at people’s absurd beliefs, and make them mad, but not enough to stop listening to him. It’s a joy to watch him make people squirm as they laugh nervously and make faces like they’ve had a bad Botox job.

I’m a comedy geek. It’s weird, but I’ve heard more stand-up specials than watched them. It used to take me about an hour to drive to work, so I used to listen to comedy specials—yeah, I’m a weirdo! I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve laughed out loud like an idiot at traffic signals, much to the concern of commuters around me.

I like Bill because he’s the classic Everyman. He worked his way up from nothing and toiled for decades before becoming famous. He’s the opposite of an overnight success. As a middle-class Indian, that’s a story I can identify with because that’s the story of most people in India, including my peoples.

For me, what makes comedians special is that they are the sharpest observers of the human condition. They can cut through the eighty layers of bullshit and see all the absurdity, filth, grime, and nobility of humanity in full HD.

This is why I think comedians are modern-day philosophers, even though they hate that description. I had written about this in a previous post.

Whenever you listen to Bill, it’s guaranteed that a few things will be etched on your brain forever. It’s not all shits and giggles, though. Bill is great at giving practical advice and answers. He’s been answering ridiculous and downright whacky questions on his Monday Morning Podcast that he’s been doing since 2007.

Whenever you listen to Bill, it’s guaranteed that a few things will be etched on your brain forever. It’s not all shits and giggles, though. Bill is great at giving practical advice and answers. He’s been answering ridiculous and downright whacky questions on his Monday Morning Podcast that he’s been doing since 2007.

Whenever you listen to Bill, it’s guaranteed that a few things will be etched on your brain forever. It’s not all shits and giggles, though. Bill is great at giving practical advice and answers. He’s been answering ridiculous and downright whacky questions on his Monday Morning Podcast, that he’s been doing since 2007.

So I figured I’d share a few things that I loved with you.

Own your shit

Artists and creators almost always get taken for a ride because of their naivete. I’ve heard Bill speak out against the mistreatment of artists numerous times but this conversation with Joe Rogan stood out in my head.

Bill Burr: Every every time you get in business with, like corporate guys, this is how it works. It’s like the check, OK, we’re in business to make money from them and then you get in business with them and the check goes to the corporate guy and then you get your cut off of his checkbook. So right there I am immediately in a situation where there’s no way I can steal from him, but he can rob me fucking blind.

Joe Rogan: Right. And you can add a bunch of expenses on the things

Bill Burr: That front end load expenses to make it look like they’re losing money and.

Joe Rogan: Yeah. It’s Hollywood accounting.

Bill Burr: Yeah. No, it’s stealing. It’s stealing is what it is. They just call it Hollywood accounting, but it’s not Hollywood accounting. It’s, it’s corporate accounting. It’s scumbag accounting. That’s just and it’s how they do it.

Bill Burr: And I just I just love telling these fucking stories because these are the things that you like. What’s great about podcasting is you can say this. This is for every person out there as a fucking business.

And, you know, there’s that thing where you want to take it to the next level. And then these these guys come in and then they’re all just like, yeah, well, hey, we’re going to take a piece of it. And they take a big fuckin chunk out of it. And what they do is their risk is all the way down here. Yours is up here.

And then somehow they just I’m telling you, like you better you better to sell twenty thousand copies on it. A hundred percent then twenty million and not own any of it. You’re going to make more money. That’s just how the game is played. And those fucking guys who steal from people, they they sleep very comfortably.

Even though Bill is talking about this in the context of entertainment, it applies to all anybody who posts anything on the internet. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a blog, starting a podcast, or sharing images: own your shit. Relying on platforms rarely ends well.

I’ve been following media and platforms for over a decade now, and I’ve seen the same story play out over and over again. Creators jump on the shiny platform of the moment and put in an effort to create stuff for the platform, but the platform changes its terms or dies, and creators are screwed.

This debate is playing out right now over Substack’s new follow feature. Substack introduced a feature that allows readers to follow writers without having to subscribe to their newsletters. Writers have been complaining that even though they’ve been gaining followers, it’s not translating to more email subscriptions. The whole pitch of Substack from the start was that “you own your followers,” and that’s changing. It feels like Substack wants to be more of a social network than an email newsletter platform.

Before this, there was Twitter. People spent countless hours building their following and are now at the mercy of a lunatic. There are countless examples of platform horror stories from Vine, Medium, Facebook, Facebook Bulletin, and YouTube.

Today, thanks to tools like WordPress, Simplecast, and Ghost, owning your creative output has never been easier. The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) guys had figured this shit out decades ago.

Don’t allow yourself to be a hostage to the whims of platforms. Their incentives will never be the same as yours. Be smart and leverage them, but don’t let yourself get locked in. Take this blog, for example. It is published on Substack and my own WordPress blog. Even if Substack dies tomorrow, all of my work stays on that site.

The same logic applies when you’re working with other people as well. Whenever you start something, don’t say yes to ridiculous terms and let other people own your hard work.

Know what you suck at

Bill was on Howie Mandel’s podcast, and it was brilliant. I wanna share two amazing things that Bill said. The first was about knowing what you’re good at and not wasting time on something you suck at.

Howie Mandel: My philosophy, I think the smartest people in the room are the people who know what they don’t know, you know, and people who know what they who think they know.

Bill Burr: That’s how I got to a lot of things that I got, was I always knew what I sucked at. So I didn’t have to waste time like when I played drums. As much as I love playing drums, when I would go to a music store, I always tell this story, I would go in and I would see some kid half my age sit down at the drums and pick up a guitar.

And you could see he, he was expressing himself already. He had it. And I was like, I was trying to figure out what he was doing. I just knew I was just like, “You, you enjoy drums. You’re a fan of music, but you are not a musician. This is not your calling.” So I just kept moving around. I’m like, “Alright, suck at that, fuck that.”

Whenever we are investing in companies, my boss, who used to trade for a living, always asks the founders, “What’s the stop-loss?.” In trading, a stop-loss is a specific price at which you cut your losses and get out of the trade. When he asks that question, he’s asking, How do you know if what you are doing isn’t working, and what’s plan B? That always stuck with me because it’s such great advice.

Not everything you do in life works, and that’s ok. But what matters is trying new things and moving on when you don’t enjoy something or if you aren’t good at it. Life is long, and there’s always something you’re good at. You will only find it if you fuck around and find out.

Sticking with something you suck at and don’t enjoy is a guaranteed way to be miserable and full of regrets. It’s risky, but that’s life, bro. If I think about my own career, I’ve distributed flyers on the streets, sold electronic goods and water bottles door to door, and done tons of other random things before finding something I enjoyed doing.

Getting knocked up

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is a common platitude people throw at you if you’re going through tough times. I’m not past it either. I use the line whenever people talk to me about going through bad times, but I don’t know if it helps. Bill had a brilliant way of talking about the two sides taking knocks: they make you stronger but leave marks.

Bill Burr: Everything in life, all the pain that you have in life, it just makes you, if you survive it, it makes you tougher. If you don’t give into it, you know, that’s the thing that you learn on the way, is like you can make the choice. You never run, people, you know often say “everything’s going great, then this happened.” It’s just like, well, that happens to everybody. Yeah. You should just, you got to use that as a, as part of your story to get in there. But if you make, you, you have the power to be, to let that thing take you out.

Neal Brennan: There’s a thing that post-traumatic stress, and there’s also a thing that no one ever talks about, which is post-traumatic growth, which is like, yeah, you can grow from this shit.

Bill Burr: You’d rather not.

Neal Brennan: You’d rather feel bad for yourself.

Bill Burr: No, you’d rather have not have that shit happen.

Neal Brennan: Of course. But I’m saying is, it’s going to happen. And the thing that I feel like you maybe didn’t have the right balance of was like, how much of this shit is just making me tougher? And how much of this is making me tougher in a way that’s not helpful?

Bill Burr: I mean, I would say like 85% of it was not helpful. It wasn’t. I mean, to this day, my, my energy sucks. Like when I go to a party, like, I am that fucking traumatized person that is feels comfortable being over in the corner and like not talking to anyone.

Having said that, if your friends tell you they’re going through some bad times and ask for advice, I don’t know what else you can say.

Or I don’t know.

Maybe it all comes down to how you deal with bad shit. I’ve always been terrible at it because I repress everything. One of these days, I will explode, and some shrink in Bangalore will get rich from just treating me.

Hobbies

Having hobbies does wonders for you. You learn new things, you meet new people, your thinking becomes nuanced, and you feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. There’s also the added bonus that your next career might start as a hobby.

I watch a lot of, uh, old shit. And then I watch, um, I watch a lot of sports, I think. But and then I’m totally into like music and shit like that, and fucking aviation, and baking. Like, like zillion, fuck it’s like my ADHD, I just fucking, I gotta be doing something and learning something. But comedy is the only thing I ever really stuck with. So was the only thing I ever really kind of got good at. Everything else, I kind of, you know, jack of all trades.

Perhaps the most important thing about hobbies is that they stop you from letting work define your identity. This is a tragedy that afflicts people today and it’s sad.

Money

I accidentally came across this video clip in which Bill explains his money philosophy, and it’s brilliant. My own money philosophy is similar. I’ve quoted a lengthy excerpt, and I hope I don’t get sued. I just realized doing something that would get me sued for copyright is a terrible thing to do financially, but imma risk it because this piece of advice is so good.

I work for India’s largest broking company, and it’s like having a front-row seat to how India saves and invests. I get to see how different types of people handle their money. What always blows my mind is that, often, the smartest people do the dumbest things with their money. There’s zero correlation between IQ and how good people are with their money.

Bill Burr: How’s your relationship to money changed since you’re now making money?

Um, I try to, try to remain debt free. So, um, there’s no 401k for a comedian. So I try and, I’m not into the stock market, I’m not into banks. I mean, I play the game, sort of required to put a certain amount into the 401k and then I just put it on the crap table, right?

Um, but my philosophies when I was investing was like, alright, I want to invest in companies that are getting tangible stuff. Like that whole pets.com crap, like I never bought into that. But if like, you were like, you’ve had a gold mine and you were digging for gold or you, you know, you, you some sort of agriculture, it just seemed like it was a, you could, you know, whatever, it was something real. It wasn’t in the air or a philosophy.

But then after a while, I just was kind of going, “Alright, so I’m investing in this, we’ll just say the gold, you know, uh, the minor thing, right, company.” I’m like, “At the end of it, I don’t get any gold. So this is stupid.” So then I was wanted to have something tangible. So like, to me, it was obvious, it’s like, buy a house.

So I bought a house and then I’m just, I’ve just paid it down like an absolute madman. And, um, you know, it’s very sparsely furnished. Um, and, but like, the freedom I have of, you know, not having credit card debt because I’ve lived like that and had it hanging over my head and it used to wake me up at night and it was awful. And people would call and, “Where’s our money?” and all that. And I, I hated it.

And something my brother told me a long time ago, he goes, you know what, we were working at the same place and looking out over this sea of cubicles. And he was just breaking it down like, all these guys like wood working in the warehouse and then they would get a position, “I want a position.” And then they would move out to the carpeted cubicle area and they buy their little, you know, shirt and tie.

And my brother be like, “What’s the first thing that they do?” And I was like, “You know what?” He goes, “They go out and they buy a new car and it’s like, now you just chained yourself to your desk. You can’t, you can’t leave.” And then he goes, “And then also the average shithead gets a dollar an hour raise and they immediately start spending two dollars more an hour. So they’re just constantly chasing it and you’re just behind the eight ball. I mean, you’re just completely fucked.”

You know, if nobody teaches you those things or tells you those things, it’s like, through student loans and a couple of credit cards and getting yourself some transportation, these kids today are so far behind the eight ball. Like, like the amount of money that they, they charge for college to go into this job market with no guarantee of any sort of a job, it’s a fucking ripoff.

My brother also told me a great thing because he’s always been great with money and he said, “You know what true wealth is?” It says, “Going into a mall, being able to buy anything and then you don’t. And you just walk out.” And like, those are the like, the lessons that, you know, stuck with me.

It’s why I drive a Prius. I mean, part of it, the reason why I did the Prius is because I fly every other weekend. I’ve literally put my own hole in the ozone layer. So I had to do something. And I saw enough people in these flashy cars, you know, you got a car that can go 180 miles an hour and you’re in bumper to bumper traffic with me. So, um, I would rather, you know, I have one TV. People always give me shit, it’s not big enough for my living room because it’s the one that I had when I had a one bedroom apartment. But it’s paid for and it fucking works. What am I supposed to do? Throw it out?

So like, those are those are the things like, you know, but because I’ve done that, like today, I don’t have to work. I can go play drums and go see a movie. Yeah. And if you’re, if you’re young and you’re listening to this, I implore you to go down that road because if you could tell from the last hour, I am not the brightest guy. I am not a well-read guy. I went after a passion, but you, you can have that life. Like, dude, having a life like, living as debt-free as you can, being able to go to the movies whenever you want to is about as free as it gets.

I’ve also been writing about how people can avoid being poor for a while now. I’ve realized that learning how to manage your money is not rocket science. Yes, it takes some effort, but that’s the same with everything in life, including farting. Sometimes, the farts come out on their own, but other times, you have to squeeze them out.

I come from a typical middle class Indian family. For most of my life, my family has lived between two extremes: the grotesque luxury of a lower middle-class lifestyle and abject poverty. Those experiences have profoundly shaped my understanding of money.

The most important money lesson I’ve learned from personal experiences and also fucking up is to avoid the risk of ruin at all costs. You can only make money if you don’t lose money. By that, I don’t mean being conservative. No. It means avoiding the obvious mistakes that guarantee ruin.

As dumb and obvious as it might sound, 80% of people don’t get it. Look at any statistic about how many people make money in the stock market, and you’ll see that 80–90% of people lose money. Forget traders. It’s the same with people who invest too—very few people have good outcomes.

What’s surprising is that there’s no grand secret to building wealth slowly. It’s bloody obvious, but it’s like reading how to ride a bike and actually riding one. Money is like cocaine for our emotions. It ups the intensity of all the dumb things we can do. As soon as we have some money in the bank, we go from being the smartest creatures in the known universe to absolute morons.

Also, watch these two clips on the topic of money:

Bill Burr – Money Advice

Kevin Hart—Stay in your own financial lane!

Bill Burr & Tom Segura – Should You Trust People With Your Money?

God

On Howie Mandel’s podcast, Bill gets into a discussion about God, and it’s epic, and I died laughing. It’s laced with profanity, so if you’re reading this and are religious, I recommend skipping this section. Don’t read it, and then come yell at me because you chose to ignore my warning. Also, don’t try to get fucking offended on behalf of all the religious people. Don’t be that guy. But if you’ve got a sense of humor, you’ll love this bit.

Bill Burr: It’s designed to fail.

Howie Mandel: Our world?

Bill Burr: Yes.

Howie Mandel: Wow, that turned dark. We’re designed to fail?

Bill Burr: Yes, and I blame God. Not a lot of people do.

Howie Mandel: Do you believe in God? Are you religious?

Bill Burr: Uh, I was, and then I wasn’t, and now I am again.

Howie Mandel: What happened?

Bill Burr: Uh, I got past organized religion and I was like, “This was, this is always them trying to explain what they didn’t understand.” So they don’t understand it. Just because they don’t understand it and they use it in the wrong way, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. So I’m trying to have my own like…

Howie Mandel: Cult? Is that really a scratch on your forehead from a child or is that a mark?

Bill Burr: That was a, yeah, it was a ritual. Um, no, I’m just, I’m kind of just having my own, I’m just kind of having my own thing. All right, you know, I like, whatever my idea of it isn’t any, any better than your idea. It isn’t any more right or wrong.

Howie Mandel: Um, what’s your idea? I want to hear your idea.

Bill Burr: My idea, I just think that it’s, it’s like, uh, the Earth is more like his like, just like sort of an artist, right? And then he just designed these things to fuck with each other for like his own entertainment.

I don’t think, I don’t think he cares. That’s my thing. I don’t think that he cares what happens to, if he cares, he wouldn’t make serial killers, which he does. He does make serial killers and I’m sick of him pawning that off on the devil because he also created the devil. That is also his creation. So shouldn’t he just handle that? Like, why doesn’t he just handle that shit? Why do we have to deal with it? Why is there this big fucking test?

Well, it doesn’t make any fucking sense. The whole thing is fucking stupid. The whole thing is fucking, if you just look at animals, what do animals do? Nothing. And then you look how some are just out there with teeth like mine, running next to these monsters, and they get ripped apart and eaten alive. And he made that too. So like, he’s, he’s not, you know, I don’t think he’s like the most, you know, chill dude.

I don’t understand why he drops you in this cesspool and then shit happens to you. And then at the end of your life, he’s yelling at you like, “What the fuck was that?” What do you mean, “What the fuck was that?” It was what you made. It was what the fuck you made and I ran into all those fucking assholes.

I don’t want to be like this. You think I want to be a fucking angry lunatic? Maybe if you tried a little harder with some of the people in my life when you made them, you lazy cunt. No, instead of fucking working six days and putting your feet up, and that’s it, let the thing just go where it’s gonna go. And then it’s my responsibility, this little fucking speck on this fucking planet. Oh, fuck yourself. I’m not really saying it to him. I’m saying it to like all organized religions.

Howie Mandel: So you believe in a fucking cunt?

Bill Burr: I believe that God is everything. I believe I’m with you and he’s also a cunt. But I definitely, I do believe that the only power that you do have is to try to be nice to people. That’s really at the end of it. That’s all you have. Even though…

Howie Mandel: That is a great ending to that rant. God’s a cunt, yeah, so be nice.

Bill Burr: I don’t have to go down to his level.

This reminds me of the legendary George Carlin’s bit on religion:

How to fix the world?

Neal Brennan asks Bill, how he’d fix the world and his answer is hilarious and kinda profound:

Bill Burr: I don’t know, but as far as like how to, how to fix it, there’s there’s no way to fix it. Human beings are inherently flawed, right? That there’s no like, uh, like the actually truly good, empathetic people don’t really want to govern people and tell them what to do. They kind of want to be left alone.

But like psychos, um, who aren’t that smart, they’re just, I think a really ignorant thought would be for me to sit here going like, “You know what, I know how to blah, blah, blah, how to do that.” That’s what dumb people think. And they go…

Neal Brennan: I’m not talking about like you should do it or run for, I’m just saying like, what would you do? ‘Cause dealing with people, I even, if it’s like, I, I have severe problems with most things, but I’m like, I don’t know what the solution would be.

Bill Burr: My first thought, um, you got to go Hitler, but with the right things. You got to have the Final Solution for

Neal Brennan: Positive.Hitler positive.

Bill Burr: Positive Hitler.You got to shave off the mustache. Yep. It’s like when Spider-Man wears the red suit instead of the black suit. The sociopaths, narcissists, you, you’d have to totally change the history that all kind of look and view like that’s what happened. You’d have to change a bunch of that.

And I don’t know how you would do it. There’s no way to fix it. There is no way to fix it because the, all of that, there’s a, there’s a fly in the ointment of everything. I think the reality is, is what we’re doing is the best we got. This is the best we can do.

A few recommendations

An old post I had written about Bill Burr

The Comedian’s Comedian

Legendary Comedian Bill Burr — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss

Bill Burr and Chazz Palminteri—Part 1 and 2

Bill Burr On Comedy Beginnings, White Privilege, Marrying A Black Woman, Chappelle’s Show + More

I will leave it at that.

Search for “Bill Burr” on Netflix this weekend and laugh a little with your friends and family. Life is shit, and it’s infinitely shittier without laughs.

Love a little, and laugh a little.

Subscribed


How to be perfect and awesome

The good place edition

Post status: Permanent Draft

This is an incomplete post because I’m still learning about the ideas I’ve written, but you’ll love them—I promise you. If not, I’ll give your money back.

Wait, you don’t pay me, you cheapskate.

Also, this is not a post with a start and an end. It’s more of a log of things I’ve learned about moral philosophy. I intend to keep adding to the post as I learn more. With that, you’re welcome for the wisdom I’ve oozed in this post. Some of the ooze will stick with you, for sure. So let’s get sticky.


You wake up early in the morning and then head to the potty to sit on that sweet Japanese toilet with a heated seat, an auto-butt washer, and Alexa support that makes your butt cheeks feel like warm toasty buns. You spend the first 2 minutes adjusting your tushy placement and making sure the vastu is right.

Then you unload the contents of your stomach with such great fury that your neighbors confuse the sounds for thunder and lightning. They also get to know that you had a hemp-based Korean barbecue burger the previous day.

Then you head to the gym. As you start driving to the gym to chisel those abs of yours that look like speed bumps on Bangalore roads, you have a choice: take the regular but slightly longer route or a quicker route by driving on the wrong side of a one way road. Remember, them abs gots to be chiseled and butt cheeks toned! So, time is of the essence, what do you do?

One day, you are stuck in slow-moving traffic and bump into the car in front of you. Luckily, there’s only a small mark and no major damage. You exchange phone numbers and insurance details with the driver, then head home. After a few days, you get a bill for $836 because the car owner wants to replace the entire fender, even though the mark you caused is barely noticeable.

You’re livid. You tell the driver that he’s being ridiculous, but he’s adamant that he wants to replace the fender. You tell him that you won’t pay him but instead donate the $836 to the Red Cross and ask him to think about it. Then you go back to work and tell your co-workers about the incident. They’re also mad and offer to donate money to the Red Cross along with you.

You get the bright idea to start a blog and tell the world about this ridiculous incident. Your blog goes viral, and soon other people offer to donate money. Before you know it, the press picks up the story, and you’ve managed to collect over $20,000. After a while, you feel sick to your stomach. You know there’s something wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

What do you do?

Are you a dick?

How do you figure out if you are a dick and fix things?

The second story is a real one. I can neither confirm nor deny if the first one is. The second story involved Michael Schur’s wife. Michael is a legendary writer responsible for awesome TV shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place.

You may have noticed that I’ve been trying to learn a little about philosophy. I’ve bought a bunch of introductory philosophy books and am listening to random philosophy videos and podcasts.

Somehow, in doing this, I discovered Michael Schur, and I’ve been bingeing on his podcasts for the past couple of weeks. Michael is a friggin genius, and I am ashamed that I hadn’t heard of him despite having watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place.

Michael describes himself as an “intense rule-follower” who was always interested in ethical questions but didn’t know much about ethics. He’s so ethical that he plays this weird little game in his head:

Michael Schur: I feel like I play a game in my life where I see good or bad behavior, and I essentially play God. I go, like… I’ve told the story many times, I apologize if you’ve heard it, but one of the starting points was like, I was in traffic in LA because you’re always in traffic in LA, and a guy in a Lamborghini pulled into the breakdown lane and just…

Jon Stewart: May I… If you’re here tonight, fuck you. Yeah, go ahead.

Michael Schur: That’s right. He’s not. He definitely died in a fiery car wreck, by the way. So he just zipped past everybody, and I did a thing I do a lot, which I was like, “You just lost 20 points.” Like, I would play that game with myself of like, “That’s negative 20, man. What you just did… I don’t know if anyone’s keeping track, but if they are, you lost 20 points.” It’s a video game. I played… I observed behavior and assigned points like it was a video game.

And then, after like the 700th time that a Lamborghini did that, I was like, “Well, maybe there’s a show there. Maybe, like, what if that is the way it’s being… What if we are playing a video game, essentially, and someone actually is keeping track?” And the top… The people on the top of the scoreboard leaders get up [makes an upward gesture to mean heaven], and then everyone else [makes a downward gesture to mean hell].

All these things led him to create The Good Place and also write How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Questiona book that tried to make moral philosophy accessibleAfter listening to several of his podcasts, I ordered the book. I’m only about 30 pages in, but the book is delightful and funny. It’s one of those rare philosophy books that doesn’t feel like splashing Domex in your eyes for even attempting to read it.

I also started to re-watch The Good Place—I had forgotten how good the show isThe show revolves around four people who end up in “The Good Place,” a heaven-like place, despite being terrible on Earth in their own ways. Soon, they discover that they are actually in the Bad Place. So they enlist the help of Chidi Anagonye, an ethics professor, to help them become better and earn their place in The Good Place.

The show explores various philosophical ideas and questions, like what it means to be good, the meaning of the afterlife, the trolley problem, and so on. It’s also filled with references to Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, David Hume, and Thomas Scanlon. It’s not often that a show can make philosophers, who induce feelings and behaviors ranging from mild seizures, depression, and gratuitous anger to suicide, digestible.

Speaking to comedian Pete Holmes on his podcast, Schur explains the motivation for writing the book:

Michael Schur: I don’t want this book to be like an indictment of the way that we are, because I feel like life is really hard for most people. You and I, I would say, are among the luckiest… We’re two of the luckiest people on Earth. Like, if you made tiers, we’re in tier one with room to spare. Like, we’re in tier one right in terms of just good fortune.

So I don’t want it to be an indictment. What I do want to say is that there are things that some of the world’s smartest people have been thinking about for thousands and thousands of years, and what they’ve been thinking about is: How can we be good people? What is valuable in life? What it’s like… How can we act and behave in ways that are productive and positive as opposed to destructive and negative?

And the problem has been largely that those people wrote only for each other at some level, and as a result, their books and writings are dense, impenetrable, and boring. And that’s… It’s like, the image I kept having in my head as I got into this stuff was like, imagine someone wrote a recipe for, like, chocolate cake that also made you smarter and you got into better shape when you ate it. Like, you’ve got ripped abs. It’s a delicious chocolate cake that gives you ripped abs. But now imagine that the recipe was seven hundred pages long and written in German. And so, no one wanted to read it. And it’s like, if more people could read this stuff, it would benefit the world.

I couldn’t agree more. I just finished reading From Socrates to SartreIt’s a book that’s supposed to introduce you to the ideas of some of the greatest western philosophers, like Plato, René Descartes, David Hume, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet, it takes some effort to understand the summaries, or maybe I’m bloody dumb.

A lot of the words and terms that old philosophers use are maddening. Even if you read things in English, it feels like Latin or black speech. In the case of Hegel, I’ve read the chapter on him three times, and I’m still not sure if I’ve understood his ideas. Reading philosophy can sometimes feel like going to the nearest hardware store, buying a 10-inch-long Tata Steel TMT bar, and smashing your head until the pain stops.

I may be generalizing, but I don’t think most people can understand the original texts of Kant, Hegel, and Hume. If books that summarize their work are hard to understand, then the original books are bound to give people an involuntary lobotomy.

I’ve only spent a few months diving down the philosophy rabbit hole, but it’s clear to me that learning philosophy can make one’s life and thinking richer. Even if you don’t buy that, you at least get to use philosophical terms and concepts in a hand-wavy way and look cool.

DALL-E

Why should we not be assholes?

Why be good?

That’s the question I had after listening to Mike Schur and reading and listening to a bunch of other philosophers over the last couple of weeks.

In previous posts, I had written a little bit about determinism vs. free will. Determinists believe that everything is predetermined and governed by the laws of nature. All our actions and choices are the result of the preceding events. Here’s how physicist Brian Greene explains the idea:

Brian Greene: If your notion of that agency, if your notion of that free will is the version, and I think we all intuitively have that, we are the ultimate authors of our actions; we are the originators of those decisions, choices, and intentions to which you referred. That is incompatible with our understanding of physical law because you and I are both just big collections of particles, and those particles are fully governed by the ironclad laws of physics.

So, every action you take, every decision you make, and every thought that you have is nothing but your particles moving from this configuration to that configuration, and that move is fully governed by mathematics. So, the feeling of making a choice, the feeling of freedom, the feeling of intentionality—that’s real. The causal influence of what you do is certainly real; you are part of the causal chain of how things evolve from here to there if you are involved in that process. But you are not the ultimate author of that process; that process has been set in motion a long time ago, and your particles are merely carrying out their quantum mechanical marching orders, and you are a vehicle that allows that to happen.

Believers in free will argue that not everything is predetermined and that we are the ultimate authors of our destiny.

If you believe there’s no free will, then everything is predetermined. So what’s the point of being good?

For centuries, the answer has been God.

Many people believe that there’s this omnipresent being in the sky watching all our actions. It looks like the gods need MNREGA, no? God has universal accountants that keep track of all the good and bad shit we do. After we die, the points are tallied up, and if we did more good than bad, we get to chill in the good place with unlimited food that doesn’t make you fat, alcohol that doesn’t give you hangovers, free virgins, and best of all you can wash you ass with water—unlike Bangalore right now.

If we did more bad than good, then we’re barbecued for eternity while being forced to watch Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives in Tamil on rewind.

What if you don’t believe in God and all that happens after you die is that you turn to dust and your relatives fight to sell your body parts to invest in stocks?

Why be good?

Blaise Pascal has a proposition for you. If you had to bet on whether God existed or not, the reward from betting that he exists would be far better than betting that he doesn’t:

Pascal’s wager is the name for an idea by Blaise Pascal. He said that it is not possible to prove or disprove that God exists and that when it comes to God’s existence, we are taking a big risk. Pascal thought it is better to bet that God exists, and therefore to live accordingly. If God exists, we could gain a lot, like eternal happiness in Heaven, but if God did not exist it would make no difference. For this reason, it would be better to believe in God, Pascal said. — Wikipedia

You might say that’s not convincing. You might point to all the assholes in the world that are doing shitty things and making tons of money. You might ask, Why should you not do the same if there’s no such place as hell?

Ryan Holiday asks Schur a similar question: “How do you not just go, “Fuck it, I’m a nihilist, right? Or, like, how do you not give up on people?” I love his answer:

Michael Schur: As long as you keep that in mind, I hope you can’t get to a point where, even as tempting as it is to just do whatever everybody else is doing that sucks and is giving them some potentially a head start in the race, or is helping them in some way financially, socially, or whatever, it just can’t be the answer to say, “I know that thing is bad that that person is doing, but I’m going to also do it in order to attain whatever that person is attaining.”

And part of that, by the way, I think is also keeping in mind—and this is obviously a Stoic idea as well as an Eastern idea. There’s a lot of philosophy that talks about how if you are attached to things, if you have the wrong kinds of attachments, or if you care too much about attaining certain things, you’re on the wrong path. It’s very Buddhist, right?

If you’re saying, “If I’m looking at someone in a position of power who is using his or her political influence to steer money towards a company that he or she owns stock in to gain financial wealth, and I say, ‘Well, I guess I’m gonna do the same thing because if they don’t care, why should I care?'”

The root of that is the idea that the thing that they’re gaining matters, right? That it’s like, “Oh, that extra twenty-three thousand dollars in stock appreciation is something that I should care about.” So if you don’t think it’s worth what you’re giving up to get it – yes, the price of your soul is that extra money.

So if you start from a position where you’re going to make sure that you are attached to the right things, to caring about that you’re mindful, that you’re focused on what actually does matter – you will start to see that the things that they’re selling parts of their souls for aren’t worth it, because the thing they’re trying to attain is not something you should even care about attaining.

And that’s hard. It’s hard to say to people, “Money doesn’t matter,” or “A bigger house or a nicer car doesn’t matter.” It’s hard to believe in that sometimes. But that’s the deal – you gotta start from that position, I think, and then go from there.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/4alo6EqTrBKYZekDaUNk52?go=1&sp_cid=9bfb7a90ad8a6437c905a40f2501c557&utm_source=embed_player_p&utm_medium=desktop&nd=1&dlsi=e46abfe6edf244d0

Or, you can be good, because being good is better than being bad. If you’re bad, things might be good for a while but then life will be miserable. But if you’re good in life, it leads to knock-on effects. Everything around you becomes better, and life becomes enjoyable. There are more good people than bad for a reason. Richard Dawkins says that morality emerged as a result of the evolutionary pressures of natural selection.

Can you be good?

The first chapter of Mike Schur’s book is about Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Aristotle says that the purpose of life is eudaimonia, or flourishing. To flourish, we need to live a virtuous life.

How do you live a virtuous life?

Well, you need to have certain virtues like courage, justice, and temperance.

Can you order virtues on Amazon?

You wish.

You become virtuous by doing virtuous things.

Yeah. Disgusting! But them’s the rules for free, unlimited, non-hangover-inducing beer and whiskey in the afterlife.

But philosopher Pamela Hieronymi, who consulted for The Good Place, doesn’t think so (archive) or rather has a nuanced answer.

Pamela Hieronymi: I think what got Mike’s attention on my website was this paper about what, at one point, was called “Why You Can’t Be Good by Trying.” The thought is, if you need to be a better person, it’s because you lack good motives—something about your motivation. And Aristotle says—and it’s good advice—I don’t mean to say it’s bad advice—but Aristotle says, If you need to be a better person, do what the good person does. So basically, fake it ’til you make it, right? Imitate the good person until you become a good person.

But what’s weird about this—what’s puzzling about this—is that motives aren’t like muscles. It’s not like repetition makes them stronger, or something. So in order to—if practice makes perfect—why wouldn’t faking it just make you a great faker, right? Why wouldn’t you just become really good at imitating the virtuous person?

It seems like something has to happen that changes you; something has to happen so that your motives shift. And that shift, I think, isn’t just effort, despite the fact that Mike loves to say “trying”—and I I don’t mean to be disparaging the goodness of trying—but mere effort is not going to get you there without openness, right? Without a kind of openness to learning.

So it is what I would say, going back to when Todd was talking about his daughter just listening, just being open to other people’s experiences, being open to seeing things a new way, being open to thinking maybe I’m not so great, or maybe this wasn’t something I merited by my own bootstraps, or maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit, maybe I actually should be taking more credit for some… You know, all of these things seem to me a kind of – yeah, so my brief would be for a kind of openness and learning.

I agree with Pamela. You can’t fake being good. Doing the right thing comes from a genuine desire to do the right thing. That means, your intent has to be right. Your intent can only be right if you have a genuine desire to learn and change your shitty attitude. That change can happen if you do as Eminem says:

In my shoes, just to see
What it’s like, to be me
I’ll be you, let’s trade shoes
Just to see what it’d be like to
Feel your pain, you feel mine
Go inside each other’s minds
Just to see what we find
Look at shit through each other’s eyes

How not to be an asshole?

The first step to not being an asshole is to know that being an asshole is bad. As tragic as it sounds, some people spend their entire lives blissfully ignorant about their asshole…ness. In other words, you need to live an examined life, as Socrates said, but in the right amounts.

“Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. But you know, an over-examined life can be a real crap festival, too.” ― Alex Bosworth, Chip Chip Chaw!

An examined life can lead to wonderful things. You could argue that thinking about how to live a good life is what put Mike Schur on a path to creating The Good Place and writing How to Be Perfect.

On episode 13 of the show, there’s a beautiful illustration of an examined moment. Despite helping raise billions for charities, Tahani ends up in the bad place because her motivations are corrupt and she hadn’t thought about it:

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kirsten Bell): Wait, I don’t get something. I know why Jason and I were sent here, but why Tahani?

Jason Mendoza: Oh yeah, didn’t you raise like $1000 for charity or whatever?

Tahani Al-Jamil: $60 billion, actually. Oh, but it didn’t matter. Because my motivations were corrupt. I didn’t care about helping the people I raised the money for. Parents wrong. Because my motivations were corrupt. I didn’t care about helping the people I raised the money for. I just wanted to prove my parents wrong, stick it to my sister, and get fame and attention. My only real goal was to snog Ryan Gosling at the Met Ball. Which I did. A couple of times, actually.

This is why it’s important to have a philosophy of life. In the book, Schur focuses on the three major schools of moral philosophy:

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethicists say what’s most important is a person’s moral character. They say that we should cultivate virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance and live life in accordance with them.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist philosophy that says that the morality of an action should be judged by the outcome. Utilitarians say that the right choice is the one that produces the greatest amount of good or happiness for the greatest number of people.

Deontology

In contrast to consequentialism, deontology judges the morality of actions based on whether they follow certain universal moral rules. The outcome doesn’t matter. Immanuel Kant is a key figure in deontology. His thing is that you need to make choices based on rules that can be universal. In other words, act in a way that you’d expect others to act in the same situation.

Each philosophy has its own pros and cons, and it’s impossible to only follow one. For example, if you were to live life as Kant says by acting as you’d expect others to live, then you wouldn’t be able to lie regardless of the consequences. Imagine being truthful when your partner asks you if they are looking fat in a new outfit. It’s going to end really, really well!

You need to build your philosophy by picking the good things that suit your temperament and discarding things that don’t. Speaking about philosopher William James on The Tim Ferriss ShowMike Schur says something similar:

Michael Schur: He doesn’t care what method you use as long as you get to some kind of truth or fact, and then base your decision on that truth or fact.

There’s something just very lovely… I describe it in the book as the jambalaya of philosophy, right? It’s like throw everything into the pot, everything we’ve got. Use whatever we can. He doesn’t care what theory you use or how you arrive at the truth as long as what you’re arriving at is the truth.

So I really like that approach because in a modern world… I mean, for him, the modern world was like 1896 or whatever. For us, the modern world is 2023. Things have already… or 2022. Things have already gotten so much more complicated than they were a hundred years ago, but he was looking around at an increasingly complex world and saying, “We don’t have time to only use one theory here. We got to use all of them. We got to use everything we have. Every tool in our tool belt, we should be able to use at any moment in order to arrive at something that we can agree upon is true.”

The wonderful thing about the book is that humanizes philosophy and makes it bearable. I want to share two wonderful excerpts from the introduction of the book that tie into the question of how not be an asshole:

To make it a little less overwhelming, this book hopes to boil down the whole confusing morass into four simple questions that we can ask ourselves whenever we encounter any ethical dilemma, great or small:

What are we doing?

Why are we doing it?

Is there something we could do that’s better?

Why is it better?

That’s moral philosophy and ethics* in a nutshell

There’s no perfect answer:

Part of me doesn’t entirely blame them [people who don’t care about being ethical], because attempting to be a decent moral agent in the universe—a fancy way of saying “trying to do the right thing”—means we are bound to fail. Even making our best efforts to be good people, we’re gonna screw up. Constantly.

We’ll make a decision we think is right and good, only to find out it was wrong and bad. We’ll do something we don’t think will affect anyone, only to find out it sure as hell did, and man are we in trouble.

We will hurt our friends’ feelings, harm the environment, support evil companies, accidentally help an elderly Nazi cross the street. We will fail, and then fail again, and again, and again. On this test, which we take daily whether we want to or not, failure is guaranteed—in fact, even getting like a C-plus often seems hopelessly out of reach.

All of which can make caring about what we do—or in the modern parlance, “giving a crap”—seem pointless. But that failure means more, and has more potential value, if we do care. Because if we care about doing the right thing, we will also want to figure out why we failed, which will give us a better chance to succeed in the future.

Failure hurts, and it’s embarrassing, but it’s also how we learn stuff—it’s called “trial and error,” not “one perfect trial and we nail it and then we’re done.” Plus, come on—the alternative to caring about our ethical lives is really no alternative at all.

A simple philosophy of life

Speaking at an event hosted by Stanford’s Ethics and Society program, Schur ended his opening remarks by citing the Delphic maxims:

Michael Schur: When the ancient Greeks wanted to distill their worldview into its simplest form, they chiseled three pithy statements into stone: “Know thyself,” “Nothing in excess,” “Surety brings ruin.”

In modern parlance: Understand who you are and what you believe. Be moderate in your thoughts and actions. Don’t be so sure you’re right that you forget to contemplate the possibility that you are wrong.

When it comes to teaching people how to act, and think, and feel, I’m not sure we’ve come up with a better philosophy in the ensuing 2,500 years. I’m not sure anyone will ever come up with a better philosophy of life, or goodness, or the search for virtue.

But I wholeheartedly encourage all of you, with your big, juicy brains, spending your formative years at one of the world’s greatest universities, to try.

I agree; these maxims are probably the most minimal philosophy of life you can live by. You could certainly do worse.

The other idea that I loved was incremental progress. On the podcast with Pete Holmes, Michael used the Moneyball analogy to talk about progress:

Michael Schur: So it’s very tempting to say, “Oh what’s the point of any of this?” Like, the stuff that needs to change has to change on such a massive institutional level that me making my own little stupid decisions… Even when, like I said, you and I are lucky people. We have good sized houses and we have, like, I have a yard, and I have two cars—my wife and I both have a car. And that immediately puts us in the one thousand of one percent of good fortune people in the universe.

So even then, how big is our impact really going to be? And then you realize, well, this isn’t just about me. It’s about all of us. If we all did whatever it is we’re suggesting we do, if everybody tried a little harder, if we Moneyball this shit, basically…

Do your remember the story of Moneyball?

Pete Holmes: I’m obsessed with Moneyball.

Michael Schur: If you haven’t seen it, Moneyball is like this team with no money. They lose their star player, they have no money. And they say, “Okay, instead of finding one guy who is this good, we’re gonna replace eight guys on our team with eight guys who are like four percent better than they used to. And then combined, they will have the power of replacing this one guy.” Everybody thought the manager was nuts, but the team ended up completely dominating.

And yes, now everybody does it. It’s lost its advantage. He foolishly allowed Michael Lewis to interview him, really, and then suddenly everyone copied what he did. But at first, people wouldn’t notice.

Pete Holmes: It’s like when you put out a new food or something – we can analyze it now. If you’re selling an amazing pancake, science can buy that,

Michael Schur: Put it in a centrifuge and separate the egg from the wheat or whatever. So the point of all this is that we as a society can just Moneyball this stuff. If we can all be four percent better than we were yesterday about anything – about water conservation, or using electricity instead of gas, or whatever – if we’re all four percent better, a lot of amazing stuff will happen.

And so all you can really control is your own behavior, and maybe you can influence the behavior of the people around you. Everyone should try to do that. Everybody should try to make themselves four percent better than they were yesterday, and help other people with new ideas to make themselves four percent better. And eventually we’ll crawl, kicking and screaming, into a brighter future.

I’d recommend watching The Good Place. It’s brilliant. I’ll keep adding to the post below as I learn more about moral philosophy.


You’re welcome for all the wisdom I share for free. Don’t you feel bad for not paying me money to share all this? Ooh, I’m sure you are going to The Good Place for doing this.

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A few things I’ve learned about writing

On the joys of writing

I don’t have a good memory, but the very first time I wrote something semi-serious was about a decade ago. I used to write some spectacular nonsense about what was in the news. Then I lost the habit.

Later, I started working in financial services. Finance is a weird industry. You rarely make a lot of money if you do what’s right. You make some, but not a lot. The only way to make a lot of money in finance is to sell your soul, one tiny bit at a time. It’s like a systematic withdrawal plan (SWP), but for selling your conscience.

The industry thrives on exploiting the little guy. If you, by chance, believe in nonsesne like morality and have some of it stuck on your calves and hips, the industry will make you miserable. I’m one of those people. It’s an industry where there’s no shortage of ethically bankrupt behaviour. So out of pure righteous indignation and laced with a coward’s savior complex, I started writing about 3–4 years ago. Pretty much everything I wrote was about how normal people could get rich slowly without being scammed.

Around the same time, I set up a personal blog and started writing about finance as well. Given that youth unemployment is a huge problem, I created another blog last year with the nominal goal of curating good things on the internet. I’ve been more or less doing that for the past five months.

Writing has been more or less fun, and I’m glad that I started. I wish I had a robot stenographer or Elon’s Neuralink so that I didn’t have to type, but I’m poor. Until I’m rich, I have to engage in the disgusting act of pressing buttons on a keyboard to type the thing that I want. Being poor sucks. This quote sums up how I feel about writing:

“I Hate to Write, but I Love Having Written”

I never really thought of myself as a writer, and I still don’t. But over the last year, people started reaching out to me to say that they liked what I wrote or that it helped them in some way. Although attention was never the goal, I’m not gonna lie, it feels good.

Writing has been enormously rewarding, and it’s made me much less dumb. As I’ve written over the years, I’ve learned a few things about writing. For some reason, my mind has been pestering me for weeks to write about it. I didn’t because I’m not a writer, but then again, that’s 99% of the people. I’ve no idea why I’m really writing this—I’m not kidding—or if it’s useful, but here goes nothing.

This is neither a comprehensive post nor gospel. These are a few things about writing I’ve learned so far in my life, and this is more of a permanent draft than a complete post. It’s guaranteed that my views on writing will change as I learn more. That’s life. So I intend to keep updating the post at regular intervals.


Writing is the easiest way to be a little less dumb in life

Like 99% of people, I’m a regular person trying to make a living. I don’t really have any notable skills to speak of. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that being a little less dumb every day is a phenomenal advantage. The best way to be a little less dumb is to write regularly.

Being just a little less stupid compounds over time, and as you near your final breath, you may even be a little wiser.

It reminded me of something I heard A. C. Grayling say when he was talking about the Stoics:

Epictetus used to say to his pupils every day when they had their discourses and they had had their discussions and they were leaving, he would say to them, “Tell me, how long will you delay to be wise? How long will you delay before you really think about this challenge and come up with some views about how you might live and what you might be?”

Then, of course, there would be among those who attended his discourses folks whose 31st birthdays were a bit of a faded memory, who were a bit superannuated. They’d say, “Well, I mean, you know, what’s the point now?” And he would say, “No, no. Even in the last hour of a very, very long life, you could become wise. Even in the very last hour of a long life, you could make that choice.”

This quote is from the same video, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Writing is the easiest way to read more

You can only write well if you think well, and to think well, you need to read well.

I think of the human brain as a large language model (LLM). To make it smart, you need to feed it mountains of information, both good and garbage alike. The way you feed your brain is by reading extensively. Once you have stuffed your brain, over a period of time, it will start seeing patterns and learn how to sift the sense from the nonsense.

Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window. — William Faulkner

The closest thing to heaven on earth is a good book, a decent place to sit, and a strong filter coffee. There’s something magical about books. It reminds me of something Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean, or glide over the highest cloud.

A book is much like that. In between the pages of a book, you can get lost in distant words, become a hero in thrilling fantasies, witness historic tragedies, speak to the greatest, and argue with the smartest people to have ever lived. A book is not just a collection of pages; it’s a magical portal.

Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom. — Captain Jack Sparrow

Good books have the ability to shatter our delusions and poke holes in our ignorance. They can unmake you and lead you down whole new rabbit holes that you couldn’t have imagined. I don’t think everyone enjoys writing, but I think anybody can be a writer.

You’ll know if you like writing when you read amazing books, because they can cause a profound yearning in you to tell the world about them. They stir and provoke you, and before you know it, your keyboard becomes a witness to the maelstrom in your head. You try to scratch that itch by writing, but it’ll never go away, so you keep writing.

Writing helps you think.

You can only write well if you think well. To think well, you need to read well.

The quality of your writing is directly proportional to your thinking. To think well, you need to read well. Of course, reading alone won’t make you a good thinker. You also have to live a little. That means fucking around in life, making mistakes, and learning from people who’ve been around the block.

Nothing clarifies your thinking like writing.

Writing helps you wander

I don’t know why I’m remembering all these Pirates of the Caribbean quotes, but in At World’s End, Barbossa has a banger when he and the rest of the gang try to rescue Jack Sparrow:

Will Turner : Barbossa, a heading!

Barbossa : Aye… we’re good and lost now.

Elizabeth Swann : Lost?

Barbossa : For sure, you have to be lost to find a place that can’t be found, elseways everyone would know where it was.

Reading is just like that; you need to get lost to find things you didn’t know you were looking for. One of the best things about writing is that it forces you to be honest. The more you write, the more you stop talking out of your ass by writing about things you aren’t sure about. When you aren’t sure about something, you start looking for answers. When you seek answers, you discover whole new worlds that you didn’t know existed.

Writing is a way of saying thank you

I don’t know about you, but I often marvel at the time we live in. There has never been a time in history when so much information was available at our fingertips for free. It’s nuts.

A big part of why I write is to share interesting perspectives from smart people. When I read, watch, or listen to something good, my brain automatically says, “More people should know about this.”

If you read the last few posts I’ve written, they are all summaries of insights from others. I write about them because that’s my way of saying thank you to the writers. When you think about all the amazing things people share for free, it blows my mindhole. On the one hand, climate change will slow-tandoori us to death, but on the other, we also live in a golden age of knowledge. Bullshit too, but knowledge as well.

Writing helps you calm down

If you are anything like me, you are always pissed at something or someone. Having this feeling of righteous indignation fucking sucks. The only things that help you calm down are being high on drugs, punching the shit out of someone, or writing about whatever is making you angry.

Drugs and violence rarely end well, so that leaves you with the least desirable coping mechanism: writing. I read somewhere that the antidote to writer’s block is to write about things that make you angry. It’s the same if you feel mad about something. The way to calm down is to write about it and tell the world about it.

I’ve also noticed that people who write have this constant chatter in their heads. Their heads are filled with voices that never shut up and thoughts that never stop. The only way they can calm down is to get out as much as possible by writing. This reminded me of something that I heard the author, Margo Steines, say on a podcast. In this case, she was talking about her use of checklists, but it might as well have been about writing:

Margo Steines: I mean I always love a list and I feel like it’s very representative of the way that I think where I often feel like there’s an accumulation of thoughts that is like faster and more urgent than I can write. — How to Write About Pain

Writing is the world’s oldest social network

A few weeks ago, I read about the legendary lifelong friendship between Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Engels discovered Marx through his writing, and their meeting led to one of the greatest intellectual partnerships in history. Their friendship was so strong that Engels supported Marx’s family financially because Marx could never stay in one place or hold a job due to his radical views.

That writing can connect people was a bit of a revelation for me. A few weeks ago, I published this post over the weekend and then went to sleep like a BBMP dog. But when I woke up the next day, both Tom Morgan, whose podcasts I had summarized, and Bogumil Baranowski, whose podcast I had mentioned in the post, sent messages.

If not for the post, it would’ve been near impossible for me to talk to them, partly because I’m a wuss. But I was stunned that accomplished people like them would bother to say hi to some random weirdo on the internet like me.

Every month, at least one or two people send a message saying that they liked something I wrote. All of these people are amazing and accomplished in their own right, which always blows my mind. This wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t writing.

Writing helps you connect random dots

If you’ve noticed, I’ve used references from two movies and two videos so far. That’s the amazing thing about writing. It helps you connect the dots between random things and gain a better understanding of things. Oh, and I’m not saying this because I’m a genius dot connector; I suck at it, but I’m getting better.

Mike Sowden and Morgan Housel are two insanely gifted connect-the-dot’ers. I love reading both.

Of course, for this, you have to be indiscriminate in the things that you read, listen to, and watch, but writing forces you to do that. The best part of connecting random thoughts is that it makes your writing and thinking much more clear and vivid.

Writing helps you be true to yourself

Unless you are an expert on something, most of your initial writing tends to be bad. You also tend to imitate other writers, confidently bullshit about things you don’t understand, and write fluffy nonsense.

If you are conscious of this, you’ll have an annoying voice in your head that will keep saying, “You’re a hack.” With some practice, you’ll slowly get rid of all the bullshit and find your own unique voice and lane. At least this was the case with me.

The more you write, the more honest your writing becomes. Unless you are sure and confident about something, you won’t publish it. In a way, your writing will reflect your values. You will stumble in the dark before you get there, but you will.

This reminds me of something the legendary Michael Schur, who’s responsible for amazing TV shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place, said on a podcast:

Some people might describe it as finding your voice. It’s a place where I personally like… it took me a while to find that spot. I started at SNL when I was 21. I was terrified. I didn’t know what I was doing. I started the job, I went to therapy, I talked about it with people. I like… overcorrected. I spent way too much of my time thinking about the job and trying to outflank it.

I was also trying to imitate people. Like, Adam McKay was head writer at the time, and Tina Fey and Will… I was like, “Whoa, I’m just gonna copy them.” But I can’t, because I’m not them, and I don’t write like them, and I don’t come from a Chicago improv background. And so, all of my attempts to copy them and capitalize on their success were flops, because I just wasn’t authentically that person.

Eventually, through a combination of hard work and therapy and a bunch of other stuff, I found my little pocket, I found my little voice. And the stuff I wrote started to be better and started to be received better.

Good writing comes first, and all the bullshit comes later

I follow some crazy smart writers on Twitter. One thing that drives me mad is that many of these people publish anodyne and formulaic bullshit because they’re writing for engagement and virality. These people spend countless hours trying to “hack” the algorithm. More time is spent on how to seduce the “algorithm” than on writing something good.

It’s the same on other platforms, like Substack. Brilliant writers spend an insane amount of time “hacking” and “optimizing” in the hopes that the algorithmic gods will look down upon them favorably. This optimization culture has become a disease, leading to an ocean of undifferentiated bullshit.

Wherever you look, it’s the same clickbaity headlines, captions, and exaggerated nonsense. As tech ethicist Tristan Harris says, “it’s a race to the bottom of the brain stem.” It makes me sad that the entire generation has been wired to write in ways that please the algorithms.

All the hacks and optimizations in the world can’t make terrible writing seem good. Trying to write something good is 99% of the game.

To write something good, you need to write a whole lot of bad stuff

I’ve realized you need to write a whole lot of horrible and embarrassing shit before you can write something good. Once all the gunk is out of your system, you’ll automatically start oozing lyrical sentences.

Trying to please others is a slippery slope

I often hear the advice, “Write for yourself.” It’s good advice, but the truth is, we all crave attention and adulation deep down. As so often happens, writers unconsciously end up writing to please their readers rather than what they want.

The desire to please readers reduces with time, but I don’t know if it’s possible to have 100% Zen-like detachment from the whims of the readers. That being said, you can use that to your advantage. I came across this brilliant piece of advice yesterday:

The instinct to fit ourselves to our milieu is tricky. It often leads us astray. If not deliberate, we end up internalizing behaviors and values that do not serve us. But it can also, in this way, be a strength: by actively curating your “audience”, as well as what you let into your senses, you can leverage the instinct to conform in your favor. You can create an environment that pulls you in the direction you want to go.

Writing is an antidote to impostor syndrome

I’ve long had a raging impostor syndrome, and writing has helped immensely in dealing with it. The more you write, the more time you spend understanding things, and so the lesser the odds of you saying dumb and stupid shit. In time, you’ll feel less like a phony.

Beware of writing tools

Be careful when using writing tools and AI tools. The more you rely on them to write, the more generic and undifferentiated your writing will be. You can’t outsource your thinking to these tools, and if you do, they will become a crutch. I use these tools, and I can see them becoming a problem. I’m consciously trying to reduce their use.

Own your work

A rookie mistake I see writers make is to rely only on platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Substack to host their writing. That’s a recipe for disaster. From MySpace, Vine, Tumblr, Facebook Bulletin, Revue, to Medium, history is littered with cautionary tales.

If you rely on platforms, you’re nothing but a digital serf, and you don’t own your work. You’re just toiling away for their benefit. Build your own website and own your work. It’s 2024, and there are hundreds of tools like WordPress to build a website without having to code. Don’t be one of those schmucks who lose all their work because some platform goes kaput.

A few more thoughts

  1. A good night’s sleep is mandatory for good writing.
  2. Writing helps you figure out what’s important and what’s not.
  3. The ability to murder your darlings is important when you write. This is something I struggle with. I get attached to words and sentences.
  4. Writing is a good way to talk to yourself. Given the pathological narcissism that plagues our world, we’d do well to look inward.

As you can see, all those thoughts are a little messy and incomplete. But I hope you are feeling like Ernest Hemingway, thanks to all my wisdom.


You will never be as good a writer as I am, but you can try. Go on. Start.

Horny for status

Why does status turn us on?

I came across the idea of “forever drafts” on Kyle Kowalski’s website last week, and I loved the idea. The term perfectly captures the essence of this blog as well—always exploring, never done. All the posts I’ve written so far have been forever drafts because I keep adding to them in each subsequent post. Another way to think about forever drafts is as a digital garden or your own magical place on the interweb where you nurture your curiosities and wonders. This is one of those forever drafts.


A couple of weeks ago, I started listening to Will Storr on The Joe Rogan Experience.

Will Storr is an author and journalist whom I discovered a few years ago when I wanted to learn about storytelling and why we are addicted to stories. He had written a book titled The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Betteranother book that’s waiting eagerly on my bookshelf for my tender touch. This is a perfect depiction of the size of my reading regrets.

Sahil Kapoor – Twitter

Anyway, I heard Storr talk about the role that status plays in our world, and I was hooked. So I did some reading and listening, and I wanted to share some ideas that I’d learned so far. It goes without saying that there’s only so much that one can learn in a week or two, so this post is more of a forever draft than a perfect synthesis.

We all have intuitive models for understanding the world. We are more or less blank slates when we are born, and we build models to understand the world. As we grow, we learn that the world is more complex than our young brains assume, and we update our models. We live happy lives if we keep updating our models and are fucked the moment we stop.

Like models, I think we all have intuitive filters for making sense of people and the world at large. The way I think about filters is as frames for thinking that operate at a lower abstraction than complex models. Filters are much less complex than models with fewer inputs. Think of them as rules of thumb.

Filters can be handy because they are a shortcut for making sense of a situation. Whether we know it or not, we all use filters, such as incentives, identity, the human need for connection, our desire for certainty, and so on. When you look at human behavior through these filters, the reasons behind why people do something or act in a certain way become apparent. Status is one such filter.

I’m not a big fan of things that purport to explain the world. Listening to various people talk about status, it felt like these experts think that status can explain all or most human behavior. I think human behavior is far more complex than can be explained by one or two variables. Having said that, there’s no denying that status plays a significant role in influencing human behavior.

Dark energy makes up 68% of the known universe, while dark matter makes up 27%.  Yet, we’ve never seen or detected either of these. But because of how the universe behaves, we know they exist through inference. Status is much like dark energy and matter. It conceals itself in plain sight, manipulating our behavior like a puppet master. A lot of our daily activities are influenced by our status without our being aware of it. But once you’re aware, it’s hard not to see status everywhere.

Status is a fundamental human motive,similar to lust, hunger, fear, and disgust. The desire for status is universal in both humans and animals. Status likely arose from evolutionary selection pressures. Women prefer men with higher status, and hence men evolved to seek status.

Men with higher status got access to better mating partners, offspring, food, territory, and other privileges. In fact, our emotions like fear, pride, shame, anger, and envy seem to be linked to relative status differences. Status is like the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s so important for our well-being that both men and women have been known to deliberately destroy the character of others in order to make them less desirable to others.

Higher status gives people the ability to choose from a wider pool of potential mates than they would if they have low status. And so one of the reasons that people strive for status is because they have access to more desirable mates. Conversely, having desirable mates endows you with higher status. And so if you’re a male, you have a very attractive woman on your arm, that leads to high status. And so there’s a reciprocal link between status and mating in that way.

Women more than men prioritized good earning capacity, slightly older age, and the qualities associated with resource acquisition. So, these are things like a man’s social status. Does he have drive? Is he ambitious? Does he have a good long-term resource trajectory, is one way that I like to phrase it, because women often don’t look at necessarily the resources that a guy possesses at this moment, but what is his trajectory? — David Buss, one of the founding fathers of evolutionary psychology.

One of the fascinating things I learned is that humans spent much of their history in small, egalitarian groups. We started forming social hierarchies only about 12,000 years ago as we transitioned from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agricultural societies. Egalitarianism defies logic when you consider the fact that we kill for status. But it’s precisely through killing that we may have self-domesticated ourselves.

We like dominating and hate being dominated. So, egalitarianism may have emerged as this uneasy compromise—it’s better not to be dominated if dominating others isn’t an option. Cooperation also emerged naturally as our nomadic ancestors realized that working together was better for survival than going at it alone. Once our ancestors realized the benefits of cooperation, they attached status to it to make it a desirable trait.

They were vigilant about people trying to dominate. Whenever someone sought to dominate others, the weaker members banded together to kill the alpha male. The invention of weapons also tamed people’s desires to dominate others.

Some hunter-gatherer groups resort to insults to control people’s egos. The Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari insult tribe members who had big kills. This way, the tribe members don’t let success get to their heads.”

But our status-seeking impulses couldn’t be shackled for long. As soon as we transitioned to agrarian societies, they exploded. We started hoarding resources and dominating others. Today, we signal status in everything from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the way we walk, the words we use, the jobs we do, and the wealth we accumulate.

We also engage in elaborate and pointless rituals in the form of lavish weddings and fancy parties to signal our status. If there are aliens looking at our behavior from afar, they’d be laughing their asses off at our social pageantry to display status.

We are belonging animals

Humans are social creatures, and we need others to survive. Cooperation emerged as a result of survival pressures in hunter-gatherer societies once people learned that group efforts had greater benefits than solo efforts. Since then, our desire to belong has been constant.

You might have read the exaggerated claim that being lonely is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While the claim may be sensational, there’s plenty of evidence to show that loneliness increases the risk of premature death. We are hardwired to avoid loneliness and isolation. We’ll do anything to belong, including being part of cults that ask us to cut off our balls and have sex with strangers.

Will Storr: Nobody has any idea how the world works until they plug into a group. And the group has its stories that it tells about how the world works. Every group has its model of what a hero is and this set of beliefs a hero has. And once we’ve plugged into that group, we orient ourselves towards becoming that person.

And cults are interesting because cults are like all human groups, kind of cults, but looser. Every human group is a status game in the sense that it’s a group of people who believe the same things. And there’s sort of rules for being part of that group. And the better you become at following those rules and becoming its ideal of self, the higher you rise up that status game.

The only difference between a cult and a religion and a business and a political group is just that it’s much tighter. So the rules are much stricter. Like there’s a zillion rules, like I’ve written before about what they call what was the cult that they castrated themselves.

It’s so weird that we’re the same creatures that went to the moon and believe nutjobs that say we can go to heaven on an alien spaceship. Our need to belong makes us blind to everything. We tend to believe even the absurdest of things because it cures isolation. Once we are part of something, we’re rewarded with status, and this further reinforces human stupidity.

Will Storr: And when they look at the psychology of people that are vulnerable to falling into cults, it’s very often people that have struggled to fit into the status games of ordinary life. So the family hasn’t worked, the job hasn’t worked. Exactly. Hobbies haven’t worked, so they’ve got no identity, they’ve got no tribe. So they’re really vulnerable to these cults, which, because what cults offer is absolute certainty.

Willing actors and unwitting slaves

One of my favorite parts of the podcast was when Storr invoked Sartre.

Will Storr: Yeah. John Paul Sartre wrote about this. He called it bad faith. And he was sitting in a cafe in Paris at one time, and he was watching the waiter, and he realized that the waiter was just behaving like a waiter, like a classic parisian waiter. He’s going, look at his movement, and he’s just really annoying. John Paul Sartre, he’s acting in bad faith. He’s doing the dance of the waiter. That’s not really who he is, right. He’s just being the waiter. And he said, there’s the dance of the auctioneer. There’s the dance of the used car salesman. And that’s kind of what we do.

Joe Rogan: The dance of the strip club DJ.

Will Storr: And the dance of the member of the cult

Joe Rogan: Thedance of the lead singer of a rock and roll band.

Will Storr: That’s what the brain does, though. It identifies. Okay, what group am I in? What does a hero look like?

I had written about Sartre in a previous post. He was an existentialist philosopher who believed that existence precedes essence, meaning we exist first and then make our meaning. He’s the patron saint of radical freedom. He argued that there is no higher power responsible for our actions, and that we must make our own choices and author our fate.

In one of his books, Sartre used the example of a waiter immersed in his role to explain the concept of “bad faith.” Sartre says that the waiter, by fully identifying with his role, has lost his sense of self and made being a waiter his identity. By engaging in this self-deception, he’s denying his freedom and acting in bad faith. Sartre exhorted people to be original and live life on their own terms.

We do this in our own lives, too. We crumble under social pressures and conform because we don’t want to be ostracized. We adopt facades and manufacture identities because it helps us feel like we belong and gain status. We unconsciously become slaves to the human tendency to mimic and imitate others, losing our identities.

Moar, moar, moar

One of the great tragedies of our times is that it’s almost impossible to think about what’s our enough. Our society and our economy are set up in such a way that it takes almost a revolutionary act to say, “That’s enough for me.” There’s no balance in anything anymore. Everything is a game, and we’ve got to play it. We’ve all become commodities, and we must exploit ourselves at all times; otherwise, we lose points.

Joe Rogan:We just have this real weird desire to never stop making more. Like, a real weird desire to maximize profit, expand, expand, make it big. Nobody ever has a company and goes, “We’re good. Just like, leave it like this.”

Will Storr:That’s because status is relative, right? So you’re always insecure about your status. It’s this imaginary resource. It only exists in our minds and in the minds of other people. You can’t keep it. You can’t put it in a box. So you’re constantly having to make sure that it’s still there. It’s still there. You’re constantly measuring your state. Like Apple is measuring their status versus Google and Samsung or whoever. So there’s that constant chippiness. You’re always trying to ratchet up.

There was this really hilarious study they did where they got a bunch of multiple millionaires and billionaires, and they asked them, how much more money would you need to be perfectly happy? And uniformly, they said, between two and three times more money. And it’s like, you’re not going to be perfectly happy. You’re delusional.

But that’s the human brain. So we think, well, when I’ve achieved this thing, I’ll be perfectly happy. But of course, we’re happy for about 10 seconds. Then we want the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And actually, it’s exhausting, but it’s also how we built civilization. It’s also an incredible, amazing thing that we’re restless, we’re never satisfied.

We want better and better and better and better. Like, it drives us forward.

I loved the nuance in the last paragraph. Not saying enough is responsible for the progress of mankind but also for making men miserable.

The idea of “enough” reminded me of a podcast featuring two legends: Stephen Fry and John Cleese, which I had written about in a previous post. In the podcast, Stephen Fry says that our desire for “more” is a hole that can never be filled. That vivid metaphor is etched into my brain.

Stepehn Fry: Well, you’re probably a generation older. You didn’t have quite… No, there was a… But they were so… You were being prepared for cocaine and tobacco, essentially. You were given white powder and tobacco, and I never could eat enough of that, and I would break out of school bans, go to the village shop, and buy all the fruit salads and Black Jacks and foamy shrimps and little rice paper flying saucers, and I stuffed myself. I couldn’t eat them. I… I got teeth missing here because of it.

So I… I had this empty hole in me, this vast empty hole that said, “Feed me. I need this sugar. I need it.” And then when it wasn’t sugar, it became tobacco, and I smoked. And then in my 20s, it became cocaine. I just… And I couldn’t sit still without going, you know, and it’s that addictive impulse that many people, many people watching will know what I mean. And many people won’t because this is the important thing to remember. I said, “Not everybody has this.” And it’s a kind of addictive gene. And I guess the money people have it for money. There’s this hole in them they have to acquire and they have to own.

John CleeseThey don’t know how to fill it, no. And they think if I had another 500 million, I’d be happier.

I heard the amazing Rob Henderson say something counterintuitive about status. He said that the rich care more about maintaining or increasing their status than the poor. It seemed weird to me at first, but then it made sense once I realized status is relative.

Rob Henderson: This has been found in a couple of different studies now that in the US, the interest in obtaining status is correlated with current social status. So in other words, the higher status you happen to be in terms of income, occupational prestige, and so on, the more interested those people tend to be in either preserving or enhancing their status.

This to was a little bit counterintuitive, because, you know, I guess I would have predicted in advance, maybe the people who were sort of at the bottom, who maybe don’t have much status, don’t have much influence, or wealth, that those would be the people most interested in sort of obtaining it and gaining more of it.

But it’s actually the people at the top who are most interested in social status, which I think, like for me, that put a lot of puzzle pieces into place, based on sort of the anxiety that I saw among sort of top college students and top graduates.

We are always benchmarking ours against others, and that’s what drives our desire for more. It’s a bit like loss aversion, or the idea that losses hurt twice as much as gains. To avoid the pain of losing status, we constantly seek more relative to our peer groups.

Status is the lubricant of capitalism

It’s fashionable to dunk on capitalism, and I’m not past it. But here’s a fascinating and provocative take on why capitalism, with all its flaws and destructive externalities, works better than all the other isms.

Will Storr: You take people’s status away. Years ago, I went to Poland to do some reporting on, like at the time, the big story in the UK was all these Polish people coming to the UK to do all this. So I remember that, yeah, where’s all the Polish people come from? So I went to Poland to find out where all the Polish people had come from, and we went to this old steelworks, this old sort of Stalin-era steelworks. And the Polish journalist who was my fixer said, “Oh, I just mentioned casually how the Poles are such hard workers.” And she was like, “We’re not hard workers, we’re lazy. I can’t believe that you Brits think we’re hard workers.” And she said, “We’ve got this post-Soviet mindset.”

So I said, “Well, what do you mean, the post-Soviet mindset?” And she said, “Well, when everyone’s getting paid anyway, you’re not motivated to do any work. So in a steelworks like this, nobody would do any work. And if somebody came in all enthusiastic and ambitious, they’d be bullied to fuck until they calmed down and stopped doing work. That was how it worked.” And there was a phrase like, “You can turn up for work or you can not turn up for work, you’re still going to get paid.”

Removing that stuff from human society removes something that we need, which is individual status. If you don’t reward individual status, you don’t motivate people to contribute to work. And that’s partly why communism collapsed, because it’s incompatible with human nature. Like, capitalism is the only system that we’ve got that is compatible with human nature. It rewards the status instinct.

Speaking to Cecilia Ridgewood, the author of Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter? on the The Ezra Klein Showsubstitute host Rogé Karma says:

One way to think about capitalism, for all of its faults, is as an attempt to channel individual status ambitions towards the improvement of collective living standards, when we say, as a society, that we’re going to give you tons of money and therefore status for developing vaccines, or producing electric vehicles at scale, or creating a bunch of jobs, then we can really supercharge that behavior. You can think of meritocracy in this way.

This observation about capitalism by Rogé Karma leads to a discussion about capitalism and its downsides. Karma highlights the fact that money has become a key marker of status in American society. He goes on to say that this obsession with money has led to a distorted situation where teachers earn a fraction of what investment bankers make. The tragedy is that investment bankers also have higher status than teachers.

He gives two fascinating examples of how status games can be set up for the better. In Singapore, public servants earn generous salaries, making government jobs status markers. In the same way, Finland places a premium on teaching, which means their teaching programs are as competitive as other programs at US Ivy League universities.

Professor Ridgeway adds that policy tools can imbue things with status and make them cool. She gives the example of the Kennedy administration’s goal of going to the moon. Since it was a national priority, working on the space mission became a status symbol, making it a magnet for the best talent.

Status addiction

I mentioned that loneliness kills us; the same is true of status. A lack of status can kill us. Storr cites the famous White Hall study, which found that people in lower grades of civil service employment had higher mortality rates. It was surprising that health outcomes improved with each higher grade of occupation. This shows status isn’t just about money or fancy cars; it’s also about one’s socioeconomic status.

The studies, named after the Whitehall area of London and originally led by Michael Marmot, found a strong association between grade levels of civil servant employment and mortality rates from a range of causes: the lower the grade, the higher the mortality rate. Men in the lowest grade (messengers, doorkeepers, etc.) had a mortality rate three times higher than that of men in the highest grade (administrators). This effect has since been observed in other studies and named the “status syndrome”.[3]

Twenty years later, the Whitehall II study documented a similar gradient in morbidity in women as well as men. — Wikipedia

Storr explains that our craving for status explains the popularity of social media across all countries and cultures.

Will Storr: And that’s the sort of the halting thing when I realized that actually, status is a resource that we need. If we don’t get enough status, we get mentally ill, and we get physically ill, too. So being low status is bad for us physically. And a lot of people have more status in their phones than they do in their actual real life.

They’re going to their ordinary job in their ordinary town, but on this platform, they’re really someone. They’ve got a bunch of followers. That shows you why social media is so powerful. It’s like it’s been globally successful in every culture. Social media is caught on because it’s offering something that humans fundamentally value enormously and need to survive, which is status. It’s a new way of harvesting this incredibly valuable resource that we value more than gold.

In a conversation with Nicola Raihani, a professor of evolution and behavior at University College London, Storr uses the brilliant metaphor of a slot machine to describe social media:

Nicola Raihani: You’ve called social media the slot machine for status. Like, what can you say a bit more about that?

Will Storr: Yeah, I mean, I think the fundamental idea that is behind the status game book is this idea that we all deserve it. Status isn’t just a desire; it’s a need, you know, it’s a fundamental need that we have.

Just like we need to feel belonging and cooperation, but we also need to feel valued by our tribe, especially when you think about it in the terms of those three games: the dominance, virtue, and success that people are constantly manifesting those three behaviors on social media, and sometimes in combination.

And you know, it’s quite well known now that one of the things that can make social media feel really compulsive is that its rewards are inconsistent. So just like a slot machine, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And I think very often we’re gambling with status.

Like, when we make a contribution to social media, whether it’s a comment about a politician or a picture from our holiday or some pithy quote or whatever it is, it’s our status that we’re gambling with. And you know, the social media company has been very canny about adding to their platforms ways to specifically measure our status.

That metaphor is bang on. Once you’ve gained some followers on social media, the numbers loom large in your mind. Your social media scorecard becomes a status marker that you can brag about. Then things go south, because very few people know how to navigate the fickle fame of social media.

A large following changes the nature of the game people play. When you have a small following, you don’t care much because you have no status. But once you have a following, the possibility of losing it, and, by extension, the status, is front and center in your mind.

The threat of losing status changes people’s behavior so that they act in a way that preserves their status on social media platforms. So they start posting what gets engagement and get into pissing contests. This pursuit of status is one reason for the stupidity you see on social platforms.

Having said all this, I’d be an idiot if I had no self-awareness. Whether I like it or not, whatever little status that comes from writing here feels good.

I loved this part. We went from competing in status games in small groups to everyone in the world, and this is making us more miserable than ever.

Will Storr: But in this day and age, in these huge groups in which we belong to, it’s much harder to feel relative status because you’re competing with millions of people, especially online. And I think that’s a source of a huge amount of misery in the modern world. A stress. I call it identity anxiety. Identity stress. We feel really unsatisfied with the amount of connection and status that we have because we exist in these fucking massive international tribes.

Luxury beliefs

Rob Henderson coined the term “luxury beliefs,” and here’s how he defines it:

Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. Adopting unconventional views is a way to distance oneself from ordinary people for middle-class individuals who didn’t attend universities, don’t keep up with fashionable periodicals, and don’t listen to podcasts and the like.

These luxury beliefs, we can get into specific examples, but my claim is that nowadays, you can predict much more about someone’s social class from their views on a handful of political or social topics than you can just from what they happen to be wearing or carrying with them at that time.

His central thesis is that we no longer live in a world where luxury possessions are the only indicators of status. He’s drawing on the work of the famous economist Thorstein Veblen and his theory of conspicuous consumption.

In sociology and in economics, the term conspicuous consumption describes and explains the consumer practice of buying and using goods of a higher quality, price, or in greater quantity than practical.[1] In 1899, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to explain the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury commodities (goods and services) specifically as a public display of economic power—the income and the accumulated wealth—of the buyer. To the conspicuous consumer, the public display of discretionary income is an economic means of either attaining or of maintaining a given social status.[2][3] — Wikipedia

Today, thanks to the falling cost of manufacturing, luxury goods have become far more affordable than they have ever been. So if the less rich and the filthy rich can both have similar goods, then how can the filthy rich signal their affluence? According to Ro, the filthy rich now distinguish themselves based on their beliefs. He gives the example of defund the police movement in the US, which became a slogan in the wake of the murder of a 46-year-old black man by the police.

Rob cites surveys to show the most vocal supporters of the defund movement were rich Americans. These were people were safe and secure in their gated communities and affluent neighborhoods. The data showed that the poorest Americans were more likely to be victims of robbery and assault. Rob says that these affluent people can afford to have these opinions because the cost of having such opinions is low. In other words, the rich are less likely to be robbed.

Conservative economic policies, or trickle-down economic policies, are another form of luxury belief because they benefit the rich:

Affluent Americans hold a disproportionate share of political power in the United States. When they use this power to pursue conservative economic policies that serve their financial interests, it facilitates rising economic inequality. Building off Thorstein Veblen’sTheory of the Leisure Class(1899), I argue that the desire for social status is an important and unrecognized reason why affluent Americans support conservative economic policies that benefit themselves financially and increase inequality. — The Desire for Social Status and Economic Conservatism among Affluent Americans

It reminds me of something Rebecca Solnit wrote recently:

The choices tech titans make in their personal lives – gated communities, private schools, private jets, mega-yachts, private islands – show that a segregated, shrouded life is their ideal. But they profit off technologies which, while encouraging our own social withdrawal, are focused on capturing as much information about us as possible. That is, we are both more isolated and less private than we’ve ever been. I have never to my knowledge seen any of these billionaires, but by necessity I use their platforms and software and move among their employees. I live in a city and to some extent in a world that has been radically reshaped by their urges and ideals, which are not my urges and ideals.

I think this is a fascinating idea and a useful frame for looking at the world. Once you’re aware of luxury beliefs, you start seeing them everywhere. Think about the Indian political landscape and the ongoing policy debates.

Rob’s ideas are similar to those of Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of public planning at USC and author of The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational ClassHer work shows that the rich are spending more money on inconspicuous consumption, like showing off their knowledge, cultural capital, and conscientiousness:

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit.

This has long been known in the world of finance. Larry Swedroe called hedge funds one of the greatest anomalies in finance, given their horrendous performance and usurious fees. I recently met someone who runs a hedge fund and told him that people invest in hedge funds to let other people know they’ve invested in hedge funds. In other words, hedge funds are a status symbol.

That’s it for this post. There are countless rabbit holes to go down, and I hope I’ve given you a good enough map to find yours.


Good reads

We Moderns Are Status-Mad

However, for the first time in history the industrial revolution enabled income/wealth to grow faster than did human population, inducing a rapid increase in average income/wealth, an increase that has been continuing for several centuries now. As a result, our status detection systems have severely misfired. They tell us each that, because we are rich, we have high relative status. And the richer we have become, the more severe has been this error.

The Significance of Status: What It Is and How It Shapes Inequality

Conspicuous consumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now

The psychology of prestige: why we play the social status game

However, when your drive to be outwardly successful supersedes all else, you may ignore exciting vocational work opportunities, put too little energy into personal relationships, or fail to make time for rest. If you decline opportunities for personal growth or self-discovery while striving for status, you could progress fast, but not in the right direction.

In situations in which status, rather than the achievement itself, is the goal, we will find that even when acquired, we will likely remain dissatisfied.

Who Wants to Play the Status Game?

There is a philosophical conundrum at the root of all this: morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

Why So Many Elites Feel Like Losers

The broader issue here lies in recognizing that the lack of a vision of achievable and replicable success, on the societal level, is dangerous and destabilizing. Due to the rising costs of housing, health care, and education, many of the markers of successful adult American life (most obviously home ownership) have become unattainable for young people. Meanwhile, we’ve spent decades ironizing the trappings of both middle-class respectability and white-collar success, representing the former as boring and conformist and the latter as exploitative and selfish. I don’t have any particular disagreement with those critiques. But the countercultural texts that so viciously lampooned the ordinary definitions of success conspicuously failed to proffer realistic alternatives. The result, from my perspective, is a nation full of young striving types who have no coherent vision of success, no reasonably achievable path forward to avoid feeling like losers. And I think that this is both inhumane for them and unhealthy for society, which requires ordinary people to buy into a shared social contract. Absent a more modest model of success, it’s little wonder that so many have decided to become creators, influencers, or artists. 

In the Shadow of Silicon Valley

The luminous Rebecca Solnit writes with great regret about how Silicon Valley has destroyed the essence of San Francisco, a place that has been her home since 1980. This somber yet evocative piece is sure to unleash a flood of memories about your own home and how it has likely changed for the worse, as does anything that modernity touches.”

The choices tech titans make in their personal lives – gated communities, private schools, private jets, mega-yachts, private islands – show that a segregated, shrouded life is their ideal. But they profit off technologies which, while encouraging our own social withdrawal, are focused on capturing as much information about us as possible. That is, we are both more isolated and less private than we’ve ever been. I have never to my knowledge seen any of these billionaires, but by necessity I use their platforms and software and move among their employees. I live in a city and to some extent in a world that has been radically reshaped by their urges and ideals, which are not my urges and ideals.

This post about hope is the first that comes to mind whenever I think of Rebecca Solnit.

Pair this with Hadden Turner’s wonderful mediation on what it means to be a local citizen and at home.


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Say thanks by leaving a comment.

Cut my life into pieces; this is my last resort

The unexamined life is not worth living

The past two months have sucked ass. Week after week, I’ve been getting a steady stream of bad news from loved ones. Feeling useless when your people tell you terrible, horrible, very bad, and no good things fucking sucks.

I can’t recall exactly how, but this week, I stumbled upon a talk titled “Philosophy and Life” by the polymath and philosopher A. C. Grayling, based on a book of the same title. It could be because I was watching another one of his talks on the history of philosophy at the same venue, and the sneaky YouTube algorithm that knows me so well didn’t have to work hard to bewitch me.

I was watching his videos because I had been reading From Socrates to Sartrewhich has a section on Hegel, one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He’s maddeningly hard to understand, so I turned to AC Grayling because his book on the history of philosophy lies solemnly on my bookshelf, waiting for me to show it some love.

Anyway, I paused watching the video on the history of philosophy, and instead I began watching the video on philosophy and life. As soon as Grayling uttered the first words, it felt like he knew about my shitty couple of months and was talking directly to me. I also felt an instant urge to start writing about what he was saying.

The idea that you need a philosophy of life, and have to spend time thinking about it might seem like an act of indulgence and mental masturbation for rich people. But the truth is, we all have a philosophy of life, whether we know it or not. poo

In computing, the kernel is a core part of the operating system that acts as an interface between the hardware and software. In the same way, a philosophy for living life is at the core of our being. Our philosophies are the result of the constant interactions between our mental and physical worlds. Being intentional about the philosophy that orchestrates our actions makes our lives all the richer.

There are a few people in my life that I consider bulletproof. They have this remarkable ability to smile despite being mercilessly pummeled by life. They have this magical ability to keep going forward. It’s as though they’ve figured out what they must do and where they should go in life. The more I think about these people, the more it seems obvious to me that their resilience in the face of the unending horrors of life is because of their belief system. In other words, a strong philosophy of life.

Now on to the talk.


Here’s what AC Grayling says right at the beginning:

So, philosophy and life, um, allow me to begin by telling you what the motivation was for writing this. Some of you may have come across collections of essays and, uh, some other things that I’ve written which bear on the same subject. In those essays, what I was attempting to do was to hint and suggest and smuggle in, uh, to people, uh, a motive for going and finding out for themselves what a philosophy of life might be.

And I noticed that, um, the, uh, fact that over the last 50 years, more perhaps since the end of the Second World War, the kind of default grasp that religious ideas, even for people who are not religious but nevertheless, the idea of, um, vaguely Christian values or the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament counted as a kind of default view as to what was right or wrong in life and what kind of handrail of a moral kind is available for how we act and how we relate to others.

But the grip of that has, of course, weakened over the last half-century and more, and therefore more people have, uh, been looking around for something that might take the place of those sorts of suggestions and prescriptions.

The second and third paragraphs may remind me of Frederick Nietzsche’s famous quote, “God is dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche didn’t mean it literally, of course. What he meant was that the traditional role that God played in grounding the existence of mankind had diminished due to enlightenment values like equality, reason, rationality, science, and secularism. What replaced God? Well, we’ve been searching for something, anything, to replace God ever since we killed him, as Grayling points out. We’ve conjured cults and godmen to replace God, but this usually ends with gruesome murders and Netflix documentaries.

Idea 1: The unexamined life is not worth living

Grayling starts by talking about Socrates’s famous exhortation to his fellow Athenians to live an examined life. By that, he meant that it is our duty to reflect and think critically about the life we are living and to contemplate our values, beliefs, and choices. In doing so, strive to live ethical and virtuous life.

Socrates, in his day, challenged his fellow Athenians to try to answer the question: what sort of person should I be? How should I live? What matters in life enough that it should shape how I live and help me to choose the goals towards which I act? And he found when he asked his fellow Athenians these questions – what matters? How should we live? How should you live? – but they hadn’t really thought about it very deeply at all. He discovered then what many, many centuries later Bertrand Russell wonderfully encapsulated by saying, “Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.”

In the early dialogues of Plato, we do hear the authentic voice of Socrates, and therefore we know this one thing about what he did say: what he did say was that the life truly worth living is the considered life, the life chosen, the life thought about. In fact, he put the point negatively; he said the unconsidered life is not worth living because if you haven’t thought about your life, your values, your goals, then you’re living somebody else’s idea of what a worthwhile life.

But, of course, we may spend our entire lives thinking about how we are living. Grayling quotes the legendary Bertrand Russell to make this point:

“Most people would rather die than think and many of them do!”

What a brilliant quote, and it’s true for many people. This reminds me of something the amazing Tom Morgan said on a podcast that I shared in the previous post:

So what happens in my experience, having been in a lot of institutions, particularly around middle management is that people don’t want slack in their day because it will leave them time to think about their choices. And I was that person, so I’m not looking down on anyone else. But you want to be distracted from that increasingly uncomfortable sense of dissonance that maybe it’s time for you to go and do something else.

Examining one’s life is a pain in the ass because it requires deep reflection about our choices and identities. This is about as enjoyable as standing naked in the sun on a midsummer’s day with an empty water bottle in hand. Such reflections about the life one has lived often lead to a lot of guilt and shame and may dredge up painful things buried deep in our unconscious. If we’ve lived a life that society considers normal—childhood, education, graduation, 9-5 job, wife, kids, secret Playboy subscription, dog, Netflix, beer belly—then examining our lives will shatter not just the comfortable delusions that directed our lives but our very identity.

In that examined moment, you are all alone, feeling like a driver in a car with its brakes cut off, navigating down a winding road. It will take a miracle to come out unscathed. Existential crises at any stage of life, let alone in middle age, are about as enjoyable as paying to have a heavyweight boxer punch you for 10 minutes while you’re handcuffed.

But if we’ve lived an unexamined life, sometimes we need a metaphorical punch in the face—or perhaps even in the lower abdominal regions—to shake us out of our fantasies. The last thing we need is a guaranteed ticket to the grave, swaddled by our illusions. Reflecting on the life we’ve lived is a sacred duty we owe to ourselves and to the important people in our lives.”

Grayling emphasizes the point by referencing the fate that befell Socrates. He was sentenced to death, having been accused of “corrupting” the youth of Athens. In reality, all he did was to prod young Athenians to think by questioning everything and holding nothing sacred:

Socrates was a very significant figure; this is why we remember him. Because of what he attempted to do, indeed to the irritation eventually of his fellow citizens because they put him to death. He was such a gadfly. But his task was to make people think. It just shows you that making people think can be dangerous because they get very irritated. They don’t want to think, and they certainly don’t want to have their normal conceptions upset too much. But Socrates did it, and he left us with this great and very profound challenge: to think, to think about how we live and what we’re to do well.

The other problem that gets in the way of looking inward is that we no longer have time for ourselves. Solitude is no longer a part of the good life but a problem to be solved. We abhor being alone and doing nothing. Instead, screens have gentrified the idle moments in our lives. They are always with us, constantly calling us to take them out of our pockets and shower them with attention while they suck ours. When was the last time you went on a long walk or spent time lost in the mental currents of your mind?

Idea 2: It’s never too late to start living an examined life

I loved this idea.

Epictetus used to say to his pupils every day, after their discourses and discussions, as they were leaving, ‘Tell me, how long will you delay to be wise? How long will you delay before you really think about this challenge and come up with some views about how you might live and what you might be?’ Then, of course, among those who attended his discourses, there were folks whose 31st birthdays were a bit of a faded memory, who were a bit superannuated. They would say, ‘Well, I mean, you know, what’s the point now?’

And he would say, ‘No, no, even in the last hour of a very, very long life, you could become wise. Even in the very last hour of a long life, you could make that choice. And indeed, in reflecting on what you really do value and what you really want to be, even in the moment that you begin doing that, as Aristotle long before Epictetus said, the minute that you begin this process of reflection, you are already living the worthwhile life.

Listening to Grayling talk about Epictetus’s admonishment of his pupils reminded me of this brilliant quote I heard from a colleague:

“Wisdom is wasted on the old, and youth is wasted on the young.” ―George Bernard Shaw

My boss said this simple yet profound thing: the older you grow, the less you take. I mean, being in finance, I knew that, but as often as it happens, something only hits you when you hear it from other people. This applies to how we think as well.

When we are young, one side effect of our empty brains is that we’re remarkably good at discarding old opinions. As we grow older, we tend to lose this ability. We become conservative, not only in our choices and decisions but also in our thoughts. We stubbornly hold onto flawed opinions and become slaves to dogmatism. We tremble at the mere thought of saying, “I don’t know.” We also create comfortable fantasies and delusions to create the illusion of comfort and stability.

This is a side effect of the social pressures, identities, and statuses that build up like sediment as we grow older. Changing anything could result in a social penalty or having to look foolish, which is as painful as being stabbed. To have the ability to accept that you don’t know something, no matter how old, is a gift because it’s an opportunity to learn.

But the way our brains evolved makes questioning, changing ourselves, and embarking on a hero’s journey hard. Our brains were not designed to think or help you understand Christopher Nolan’s movies, but to keep us alive. That’s their only job. The way our brain functions is in service of that objective. Since pain and uncertainty are problematic for ensuring our survival, our brains, through natural selection, are hardwired to avoid them at any cost. Our preference for stability and the known is a result of this deep-seated evolutionary imperative.

This naturally leads to questions about the role of suffering in life. As Grayling points out, religious beliefs have grounded us since time immemorial, but they started withering away with the dawn of modernity. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian beliefs, suffering was a punishment for the sins in your past life, the price of our worldly attachment to, or the price we pay for eternal bliss and getting closer to god. The notion that suffering is central to personal and spiritual growth is a key tenet of many religions.

But our modern lives are characterized by the avoidance of pain and the maximization of pleasure. To my mind, this is a symptom of the corrosive effects of bastardized versions of utilitarianism and individualism. It stems from our inability to see and be a part of the whole. While we are built to avoid suffering, paradoxically, it is the catalyst for our growth. Even John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of utilitarianism, had to suffer through a crisis to continue his life’s work.

This reminds me of the brilliant Simone Weil’s meditation on suffering that I read on Maria Popova’s blog:

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword. To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.

Idea 3: We’re as free as we can be

There’s a wonderful part in the talk where Grayling talks about the idea of free will. If you’ve read my previous posts, you may remember that most physicists reject the notion of free will. Many of them have beliefs similar to those of author and physicist Brian Greene: that we are just a collection of particles dancing to the tunes of the fundamental laws of physics. Grayling rejects the notion of determinism:

Firstly, we have to accept that the possibility of change exists, the possibility that we could do things differently from the way we’ve been channeled so far. That has to be a possibility because if we thought of ourselves as we’re now told by the neurologists we should, as kind of an automaton, that all our actions are determined by what happened billions of years ago in the history of the universe, then of course the entire conception we have of ourselves as thinkers, as choosers, as feelers, as moral beings, and most importantly as ethical beings, would just be a massive error, just a huge mistake about ourselves.

And that’s just not… then it’s not possible that we could really change and do things differently. And that way of thinking, of course, is an impossibility. You can’t think in those terms. We have to think it’s an undischarged assumption of our lives that we are free.

Now, of course, the freedom in question is a metaphysical freedom, not a social freedom. Freedom, I mean, you could, if you wanted to, rip off all your clothes and run down to the Christmas Market now screaming. Um, that’s something that you could do, but you’re extremely unlikely to do it because, of course, we are like flies caught in the spiderweb of law and expectations and society and normal behavior.

Uh, so in that sense, we’re not free; we’re constrained. We’re constrained by our obligations, our commitments, our promises, the fact that we have to pay tax and drive on the left-hand side of the road. These are things that constrain us all the time.

And yet, within that, within that metaphysically, within ourselves, we are free. And each one of us, even though we live in a society among others and we have to yield up to others some degree of our personal liberty so that we can get along with them and they can have some degree of personal liberty too, nevertheless, within ourselves, in the great universe of our minds, we are sovereign.

That last line is poetry.

Even though we’re constrained by the ties that bind us and burdened by the expectations that have been heaped on us, we are free to make choices and change. If we don’t believe this, what’s the point of life? This is why, beyond a point, debates about free will seem like mental masturbation to me. Whether you think you have free will or don’t, you still have to make your own meaning. That’s the essence of an examined life.

Idea 4: We have an eternity to live a good life

I loved this story of King Croesus and Solon.

[Lydian King Croesus] He was by far the richest individual of ancient times, very proud of it. He used to have his visitors shown the great panoply of wealth in his Treasury, and then when they came to have dinner with him afterwards, he would say, “Who in your opinion is the happiest man in the world?” And Solon said, “Well, I know some people back in Athens I would,” and was very cross, “What, you choose a commoner over me? I’m a king, and I’m so rich!” So Solon said, “I don’t know whether you’re happy, but I do know you should think about what would make you so.”

And the reason why is the brevity of life, that human life is less than a thousand months long on average. Do the math, suppose you live to 80, what’s 12 times 80? 960 months. And unless you party a lot, you’re asleep for a third of them, another third you’re in a queue in Waitrose, if you’re lucky, or Tesco, or somewhere like that. So you think, “Oh God, I’ve got about a third of 960 months, 300 odd months really, to live with all the passion and vividness of a human life.” It’s a very depressing thought until I point out two things to you. The minor thing is that 300 odd months is about 25 years.

Grayling goes on to explain the finitude of human life with another beautiful anecdote from a philosophy professor. He says that there is no such thing as time, but only experience. In other words, time is elastic. He gives the example of spending a Sunday in Paris with a person you love. As long as you are in Paris, the day will feel like an eternity, but as soon as Monday dawns, time contracts. He says that if you live to 80, that’s just 960 months. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a blip. But he goes on to say that if we live a meaningful life, those 960 months will feel like 960 lifetimes.

There is no such thing as time; there’s only experience. And therefore, the more richly you experience, the more lifetimes you live. Not 960 months but 960 lifetimes.

In the interest of keeping this less long, I’ll end the post here. But make no mistake, I have but picked 1% of the ideas in the talk. It’s a beautiful talk packed with insights from some of the greatest thinkers to have thunk about the question of living a meaningful life across thousands of years. I can’t recommend listening to this enough. I’ve added the book to my list of regrets—I mean, my list of books to read. If I do get around to reading it, you can expect an even more delicious and richer post of ideas. For now, I leave you to think about your own winding path in life.


Existential reads

Suffering, not just happiness, weighs in the utilitarian calculus

Mill tries philosophically to resolve the paradox of suffering by arguing that higher goods such as love and literature are ultimately more satisfying than basic forms of pleasure. In some sense, that’s true. But the terms of this satisfaction are no longer utilitarian; they have more to do with adventure, beauty, even holiness. As the political philosopher Michael Sandel puts it in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009): ‘Mill saves utilitarianism from the charge that it reduces everything to a crude calculus of pleasure and pain, but only by invoking a moral ideal of human dignity and personality independent of utility itself.’

The semi-satisfied life

as Schopenhauer puts it with his keen eye for an analogy: ‘we do not feel the health of our entire body but only the small place where the shoe pinches’. If we do manage to resolve whatever is bothering us, we tend quickly to take it for granted and shift our focus to the next problem: ‘it is like a bite of food we have enjoyed, which stops existing for our feeling the moment it is swallowed.’ Moreover, however small the next problem, we tend to magnify it to match the previous one: ‘it still knows how to puff itself up so that it seems to equal it in size, and so it can fill the whole throne as the main worry of the day.’ Consequently, we rarely feel the benefit of the things we have while we still have them: ‘We do not become aware of the three greatest goods in life as such – that is, health, youth and freedom – so long as we possess them, but only after we have lost them.’

Simone Weil on How to Make Use of Your Suffering

The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.”

Pair this with:A just and loving gaze

A Zen Buddhist priest voices the deep matters he usually ponders in silence

This was beautiful.

The Great Betrayal

The default response is that our incomprehensibly complex modern economy cannot support mass self-determination except for the blessed elites. But if the intelligence behind our reality can produce the endless miracles of existence, spontaneously reorganizing an economy around greater open-ended cooperation is child’s play. The idea that the capitalist market system is somehow isolated from the inexorable complexification of reality is just a weird cognitive limitation that we might need to shed. We could just focus on pursuing our own unique niche and let the rest sort itself out around us.


It’s Sunday. Why don’t you start thinking about your terrible and no-good life and start having an existential crisis?

Your future self is calling you. Can you hear?

If you know who Tom Morgan is, then you’re lucky. If not, you should be ashamed of yourself. Once you’ve sufficiently marinated in your shame, clean yourself up with a towel and prepare to have your mind blown. Tom Morgan is one of the best curators and synthesizers on the internet.

Tom calls himself a “curiosity sherpa” who tries to identify the most interesting
ideas and people around the world. I gotta admit, that’s the coolest job description I have ever heard. He has this insane gift for finding some of the most provocative, wild, and what many would consider fringe thinkers and heretical ideas on the interweb.

His genius lies in his ability to find connections across finance, history, the cognitive sciences, spirituality, and mysticism. Reading and listening to him draw connections between obscure things and then connect them to the way we live is a treat. There are very few synthesizers like him; the only other name that comes to mind is Morgan Housel.

I have a shit memory, but if it serves me right, the first time I discovered Tom was when he appeared on Jim O’Shaughnessy’s Infinite Loops podcast. As soon as I heard the episode, I was hooked. His amazing ability and conviction to keep an open mind and not be swayed by popular judgment was truly inspiring.

I can’t recollect how or why, but his name popped up in my head this week, and I started listening to his podcasts. Since the idea of this blog is to collect and curate ideas, I figured I might as well introduce you to a few of Tom’s ideas. He was also one of the inspirations behind creating this blog as a tiny and sane corner on the interweb where I could avoid choking and dying intellectually from the toxic fumes that emanate from the dumpster fire that is the internet.

You may not agree with everything Tom says, and some of it may even sound nonsensical—I leave that judgment to you. But I would urge you to listen and read him with an open mind. I want to write a detailed post synthesizing the synthesis of his explorations, but for now, here are a few ideas to titillate and provoke your imagination.

I’ve quoted several amazing and lengthy podcast transcript snippets from podcasts that Tom was on. I hope I don’t get sued for copyright 😬🤞🏻

Surrendering to your curiosity

In one of his blog posts, Tom wrote:

If I could have any contribution to the world, it would be to make people trust the power of their own curiosity a little more.

That’s such a beautiful and noble thought.

Speaking to Bogumil Baranowski on the Talking Billions Podcast podcast, he elaborates on why he thinks curiosity is so important.

He explains that a key moment that led him to understand the importance of curiosity was a lecture by the controversial Jordan Peterson.

I remember in I think 2017, I was listening to this absolutely stunning lecture by Jordan Peterson, which is a difficult issue because he’s had his own trajectory that I’m not totally a fan of, but back then he was doing some truly electric stuff. And there was this line where he said that Carl Jung had a theory that your future self called to you in the present by directing your interests.

In the podcast, he elaborates on why Carl Jung’s idea of our future selves shoving us towards our destiny by directing our interests in the present was a critical moment in his life:

I know that you and I are kind of fascinated with the concept of language. I believe that curiosity is a relationship with a higher intelligence of some kind because your intelligence is not entirely your own. And I believe that you can somewhat reductively call it Evolution that your potential calls to you in the present by saying if you pursue this path of what you’re interested in, you will grow in an appropriate way. You will grow towards your potential in an appropriate way.

And you know, I said there is basis in science for this, and I think one of the simplest ways of looking at it is this, which is that the universe trends towards complexity, which is kind of an obvious statement, right? Like if you look at Earth, you have rocks, you had tribes, and now you have the internet, and that line of complexity has kind of gone parabolic particularly over the last few years.

And what does it mean for something to be complex? It’s almost a paradox, but basically, it’s for things to have very, very, very distinctly differentiated parts but all completely integrated in a whole. What does that mean for you and for me? It means that the direction of the universe is for you and me to become the most differentiated versions of ourselves possible through pursuing our own highly unique niche, which is the skills we are cultivating. And as we follow that path, we will become more and more differentiated. But that differentiation is only useful if it is in service of the whole organism, if it is in service of all of society all over the world.

And when you get those two things right, which is insanely difficult and it’s the work of a lifetime, when you get those two things right, unbelievably good things happen to you. But you have to get both sides right. But that, I believe, you are drawn into your niche through curiosity because I don’t see how else that process could happen because there are an infinite number of things in the world you could pay attention to. So why are you being drawn to just a small platform?

Tom goes on to say in the podcast that he still vividly remembers the day he heard Carl Jung’s line in Jordan Peterson’s lecture, and how he felt. Read the part of the podcast transcript that I’ve highlighted in bold. While Tom was struck by Jung’s idea, his expansion of Jung’s idea hit me like a lightning bolt. It was Thursday, I think, and I had come home from work and demolished a sumptuous meal like a barbarian who hadn’t eaten in days. I went to my terrace to walk around a little to let the meal settle, and I was listening to this episode on loudspeaker.

Then, BAM!

It hit me like an accidental drop kick in the nether regions by my 3-year-old nephew.

Tom’s perspective on surrendering to your curiosities reminded me of the clichéd and often-heard lament that we lose our childlike curiosity as we grow up. It takes an incredibly open and flexible mind to retain that sense of wonder as we grow older—a sense that’s formative to our development. Jim O’Shaughnessy asked him how he keeps an open mind on the Infinite Loops podcast, and here’s what Tom had to say:

Jim: You have an incredibly flexible mind with the stuff that you post. It’s amazing. How do you keep your mind so flexible? And what you’re really good at, and what I really read you for, is your ability to synthesize. I think that’s the new intelligence that’s going to be rewarded. So, tell me about that.

Tom: And I think that is where the hero’s journey and the nature of attention come together, in that Carl Jung had this crazy, life-changing idea that if you followed your attention and you followed your interests, it would lead you to a path of personal growth that you couldn’t anticipate, because you didn’t have access to all the information, because your left hemisphere and your consciousness are so limited. And Joseph Campbell had the same insight as well with The Hero’s Journey, which is follow your bliss and doors will open where previously there were only walls. And so when everyone comes to the same conclusion, and it takes an enormous amount of courage to do that.

But I think to answer your question in a very long-winded way, is that people ask, “Aren’t you reading all the time,” and, “How do you come onto these different sources?” If I’m like, “I really don’t. I don’t even read that much relative to what other people I know.” But when something grabs me, I really, really respect that impulse. And it may not even be clear for years afterward what I’m getting from that. But suddenly, particularly over the last few months, things have come together, now that I’m in a much more creative role, in a way that I couldn’t ever have expressed. In that now that I can synthesize it, all I do is follow that thread, and it leads me to unbelievably spectacular places.

Duel of fates

If you read and listen to Tom, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s a fanboy of British psychiatrist Dr. Iain McGilchrist. He’s spoken about Dr. McGilchrist’s thesis that our brain is divided into two hemispheres, ad nauseam. The left hemisphere is narrow, analytical, logical, verbal, competitive, and likes control. The right hemisphere is non-verbal, exploratory, cooperative, empathetic, directs our curiosity, and sees the big picture.

The key insight from Dr. McGilchrist is that our world is dominated by left-hemisphere thinking, and that’s at the root of most of the ills that plague us. He says that the right hemisphere should be the master, and the left hemisphere should be the emissary.

Interestingly enough, the left hemisphere also sees living things as dead. If you experimentally suppress the brain’s left hemisphere for 15 minutes, you start to see dead things as alive—the Sun going across the sky giving you energy. If you suppress the brain’s right hemisphere for 15 minutes, people start to see other human beings as zombies, pieces of furniture, machines, dead. And the fact is, it’s very easy to compete with, manipulate, or kill something where you don’t see the life in it.

Also, the left hemisphere has very limited bandwidth. If someone came up and spoke to you right now, you wouldn’t be able to process two conversations at once. Conscious bandwidth is something like 60 bits a second; our unconscious bandwidth is about 11 million bits a second. Which means if you wiggle your big toe, do it right now, wiggle your big toe, it wasn’t like your big toe just suddenly started existing; it just wasn’t being served to your conscious awareness. — Tom Morgan

Dr. McGilchrist and Tom Morgan are of the view that the dominance of left-hemispheric abstract thinking is at the root of some of our most pressing crises, like disconnection, lack of meaning, social isolation, and the mental health epidemic.

It’s a fascinating and provocative theory, and Tom says that Dr. McGilchrist’s ideas would still be relevant even if the theory were to be debunked. I agree. The idea that people have become way too rational and logical aligns with my own worldview. I wholeheartedly agree with his belief that we need a lot of irrational, spiritual, and mystical things in our lives, even if it makes us look like incense-sniffing weirdos.

If I read one more sodding article about how the only thing we need right now is just to be more rational, right? If everyone could dissect the problem and be as smart as me and make these observations, we would have no more problems, right? And that is sort of everything that we do right now, right? And that again is trying to solve the problem we got into with the problem that created it, which is if we’re just a little bit more reductionist and we can put break this down into more and more discrete parts, eventually it will be a solution.

Think about it this way: there’s a great quote that is to the effect of, if you divide the cow into more parts, you’re going to get more beef. You’re not going to get more cow, right? If you disrupt any complex adaptive system, you’re gonna kill it. You know, it’s like Johnny Five in Short Circuit for anyone old enough. You know, he realizes quite early on that if he tears things apart, he kills them.

And modern science and modern finance are unbelievably good at taking things apart. But then, how do you turn the beef back into a cow? Well, that requires magic, right? Like, quite literally, it requires magic. And you know, I was reading about shamanic cultures the other day, and it wasn’t the breakdown that would characterize whether someone was going to become a shaman. It was the nature of their reconfiguration afterwards, how they put themselves back together.

And I think that relates to the point that I was making earlier, which is you need to put things back together according to the propensity of the system, which is that we need people who are able to connect to values, to understand the way the system is flowing, and then align themselves with that in a harmonious way. And everything will work out much, much, much better. And you do that in an emergent way. Emergence is being on that middle line between order and chaos, right? Between embodiment and intellect. And once you’re in that space, you can tell exactly where the system is going to flow.

Productive waste

I loved this bit. Jim O’Shaughnessy says that if things like trading cards, TV shows, sports, politics, and celebrities occupy even a tiny bit of attention, then people have to reevaluate their lives. He asks Tom if there’s a course that can help people rid themselves of these useless obsessions. Tom’s answer was fascinating:

Tom Morgan: My wife is dramatically more successful and accomplished and magnificent in every way, relative to me. And she was in so much pain that one day she went to an acupuncturist and the acupuncturist was like, “What do you do that’s just for you?” And she ran down a whole list of things like, “I tidy the apartment, I do this, I do that.” And the acupuncturist dismissed every single one of them with, “These are all productivity hats.”

And then she was like, “What do you do?” and she’s like, “I watch Real Housewives.” And she was like, “That. That’s the thing. That’s your slack.”

I know we both have a mad love affair with Rory Sutherland and he’s like, “You need a certain amount of slack in the system.” And if it’s Magic the Gathering, if it’s Dungeons and Dragons, if it’s Real Housewives, if it’s complete crap, but that still gives you either an energy-positive feeling or enough time to be unproductive. I think that’s actually really pretty positive.

So I’m going to go ahead and shelve that on one side and each to their own. I think that, in terms of teaching this, I think that the most important lateral, so Tom Pence, he gave me… It told me to read a book by Stefan Zweig called The World of Yesterday. And I’d never heard of Stefan Zweig at all and didn’t know who he was. And he was basically one of the greatest writers of like the twenties and thirties. And he made his life a study of geniuses.

The bit of the book that grabbed my attention is where he talks about watching Rodin work, the sculptor. And he says that he basically stood in a room and watched him sculpt for an hour. And at the end of the hour, Rodin turns round and is like “Shit, you’re still there!”. He had completely forgotten time and space. And he was completely absorbed. And I think that Maria Popova, going back to her, she describes it as this mix of intention and attention, which is taken from Buddhism. And if you can find something that grabs your attention so much that you can concentrate on it for hours at a time, that’s how you lay down the foundation that provides meaning for the rest of your life.

And this doesn’t have to be all day every day. But I think that that signal, but it’s that combination of exploratory attention and focused attention that puts you exactly on your beam. And I think the signal that you’re on your beam is that whatever you’re doing feels meaningful.

Jim’s question highlights one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Today, anything that isn’t “productive” or “isn’t improving your life” is seen as a waste of time. It has become accepted wisdom that you shouldn’t waste your time and that you should work on being “1% better every day.” Since this is the received wisdom for most people, leisure, which is meant to rejuvenate people, makes them feel like shit. This was one of the previous themes of my previous post. It also reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the virtues of idleness. There has to be balance in everything.

I mean, it’s an unnatural expectation that you must be productive at all times. If it makes you feel better, here’s something I came across on Paul Bloom’s newsletter:

Here’s Darwin:

I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything.

Anything to not think about our shitty lives

Read the part in bold. This hit me like a cyclist with his brakes cut off, desperately trying to avoid crashing into a person’s family jewels. Though I’m not that old, I’ve still had those moments when I look at myself in the mirror and the only thought in my head is, “What are you trying to do in life, you miserable piece of shit?” And, like Tom says, I used to do anything to avoid having to think about whether I was doing something meaningful in life. It’s a profoundly disorienting experience.”

Jim O’Shaughnessy: The way I look at this is, we are in a time of what I think is great change. Why not throw a couple more irons on the fire? Why not say, “you know what, we might have to redesign the way we educate people?”. What do you think?

Tom Morgan:I think it’s become probably overly fashionable to knock education. And I felt like I had a strong education and it gives people a menu of things to choose from before they know what they’re interested in. And I think that’s a really good thing. And it helps people lay down the foundation.

I think the danger is when you assume their menu is the only thing to choose from, right? And as you get older, you get stuck in this rut. And I think it links to your previous point, which is that… So what happens in my experience, having been in a lot of institutions, particularly around middle management is that people don’t want slack in their day because it will leave them time to think about their choices. And I was that person, so I’m not looking down on anyone else. But you want to be distracted from that increasingly uncomfortable sense of dissonance that maybe it’s time for you to go and do something else.

I think this is a state of existence that a lot of people can relate to. In the podcast, Tom says that the only way to get out of this abyss is to kill your ego and relinquish control. That means giving up on everything that you have built and accumulated and all the safety nets that you have put up. As nightmarish and disorienting as this journey is going to be, the alternative, he says, is “death.”

Uff.

In the interest of brevity, I’m gonna stop because, if I continue writing, this won’t be a blog post but rather a booklet. But don’t worry; I will continue writing about his ideas until you beg me to stop. I leave you with this brilliant quote I heard him share on a podcast:

“It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.” ―J. Robert Oppenheimer

Explore more

Tom’s writing is dense and packed with insights—it’s like superfood for the brain, and I can’t recommend it enough. He belongs to a dying breed of intellectually honest and doggedly curious people. You always learn something new whenever you read or listen to him, and I’m grateful that he openly shares his ideas.

I’ve already linked to several of his podcast appearances, but here are a few more on my playlist:

His second and third appearances on Infinite Loops

The most interesting man in finance

As an aside, I had a subheading called “duel of fates.” It was inspired by the title of a musical theme from Star Wars, composed by John Williams. It’s one of my favorite movie soundtrack pieces of all time.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/1ghlpxVfPbFH2jenrv9vVw

Good reads

Zygmunt Bauman: “Social media are a trap”

In which direction is the pendulum that you describe between freedom and security swinging at the moment?

A. These are two values that are tremendously difficult to reconcile. If you want more security, you’re going to have to give up a certain amount of freedom; if you want more freedom, you’re going to have to give up security. This dilemma is going to continue forever. Forty years ago we believed that freedom had triumphed and we began an orgy of consumerism. Everything seemed possible by borrowing money: cars, homes… and you just paid for it later. The wakeup call in 2008 was a bitter one, when the loans dried up.

Zygmunt Bauman is a sociologist, and I had never heard of him before. He has some dark yet fascinating views on the state of the world. A good rabbit hole for me to go down.

The dance of the Tao and the ten thousand things

I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated the many layers of this essay, but it’s a brilliant meditation on complexity.

In studying the biology of a plant, I can deaden myself to the real plant. I can see it as its Latin name and know things about its genetics and genus and species and evolutionary environment and medicinal and chemical properties and ecological niches it inhabits and creates…and in doing so, have less attention on the utter uniqueness of this life in front of me, the infinity about it I will never know, and as such, have missed the opportunity to really see it. But if instead, I take my knowledge of the complexity of cellular metabolism and evolution and the connection of the plant with all the other plants I can see around me through the ecology of the mycorrhiza and soil microbiome and its gas exchange with me to know we are literally made of the stuff of each other and have porous boundaries…and I consider all of that complexity and integrity and beauty and order and wildness and intelligence…and remember that all that information isn’t even a measurable fraction of all that is actually going on…and use the knowledge to prime an even deeper wonder and respect and reverence and awe…then the practice of knowledge and the practice of the Tao are dancing.

This essay was written by Daniel Schmactenerber, and I came across him when I was writing the piece on Moloch. He’s a fascinating thinker, and his name has been on my list of rabbit holes to go down.

Reflections From the Field: The Non-Conformist Cemetery

Another delightful and evocative essay by Hadden Turner

The more I read Hadden’s work, the more I want to meet him one day and get an autograph. I’ve linked to several of his essays previously, and I can’t recommend them enough. His descriptions of local places that we all tend to ignore are nothing short of poetic.

I have taken many a walk around the perimeter of the cemetery, reading the biblically-infused inscriptions on the graves which tell of “threescores and ten” faithfully lived, or lives tragically cut short (as in the case of the 17 year old Ralph Luckin Smith, who disobeyed his mother by picking a spot — and died of sepsis as a result!). These old, weathered stones tell tales of missionaries to India, battles fought in Germany and France, proprietors of local businesses that are now lost, and of mothers weeping for their young child. Time and time again one reads “IN SACRED MEMORY” and I like to think that in taking the time to stop and read the names and inscriptions I am, in a sense, holding the memory sacred of these ordinary but faithful saints of old.

Going Home with Wendell Berry

I discovered Wendell Berry because of Hadden’s essays, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t heard of him before. This New Yorker profile is amazing and touches on many themes that are near and dear to my heart, like the meaning of home, what it means to belong, hearing your calling, and respecting nature’s bounty, among others. It also touches on many of the same themes as what Tom Morgan talks about. I have now joined the Wendell Berry fan club. Berry is what people in Karnataka would call ಮಣ್ಣಿನ ಮಗ, or a true son of the soil.

Between 1940 and 2012, the number of farms in the U.S. decreased by four million. The absence of so many farmers and their families is seen as progress by the liberals and conservatives who have been in charge of the economy since about 1952. Meanwhile, the farmland and the few surviving farmers are being ruined both by destructive ways of production and by overproduction. The millions who are gone have been replaced by bigger and bigger machines, and by toxic chemicals. If we should decide to replace the chemicals and some of the machinery with humans, as for health or survival we need to do, that would be very difficult and it would take a long time.


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It’s a good day to think about your miserable life and wallow in it. Go ahead and start; you have my permission.

Exploiting yourself to death

The commodification of self edition

I had a busy week, so I couldn’t read or listen to anything that aroused a strong craving in me to bang out a post and subject the world to the gyan that usually oozes out of me. As Thursday passed and Friday was ending, I still had nothing. At around 8 PM on Friday, I found myself contemplating a dreadful thought: What would happen to the world if I failed to share my profound wisdom? I shuddered at the mere thought. The fact that people rely every week on the wisdom that drips out of me for meaning in their lives is a responsibility I take seriously. Then I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner with friends, and then I slept like a BBMP dog.

On Saturday, I woke up, finished downloading the previous night’s dinner, and headed to my usual coffee spot—my own little piece of heaven. For years, going to the coffee shop as soon as I wake up or after I finish sculpting my Greek god physique in the morning has been a ritual. I can’t think of a greater pleasure in life than a hot cup of strong filter coffee, a place to sit, and a few  good things to read.

As I parked my bike and was crossing the road to the coffee shop, it hit me. Early in the week, I heard a brilliant podcast episode. I can only describe the experience of listening to it as getting punched in the brain with a boxing glove dipped in chilly power and lined with rusty old nails. I had heard Stephen West, the wonderful host of the Philosophize This! podcast, distill the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han, the South Korean-born philosopher, cultural theorist, and author residing in Germany.

I had discovered the episode as I was scrolling through my non-algorithmic feed of new podcast episode releases on my Pocket Casts app. Until that moment, I had never heard of Byung-Chul Han. After listening to the episode, I felt ashamed and had a fair amount of regret that I hadn’t discovered him earlier.

Han is bloody brilliant, and I can’t think of many people who have chronicled the ills of life under modern capitalism in as brutal a fashion as he has. He’s the definitive philosopher of our times and our miserable lives. I kept nodding and chuckling nervously as I listened to the episode, because what he says is what I have been feeling for a long time, and I have been writing here as well. His philosophy ties in with the common theme of all the posts I have published so far—how to live a meaningful life. 

I didn’t have a lot of time to dive deep into his work, partly because he only speaks German. So I had to rely on translated interviews, analyses of his philosophy, and syntheses by podcasters. This is fraught with issues, but it’s good enough to get an outline of his philosophy. I intend to read his books this year and write more detailed summaries, but for now, I wanted to write a broad introduction to his key ideas. My hope is that they will spark a few questions in you.

Positive power

One of the key ideas of Byung-Chul Han is that we no longer live in what the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault called the “disciplinary society.” In a disciplinary society, those in power no longer rely on violence to enforce conformity. The era of beheadings and violent public spectacles to punish non-conforming citizens has passed. In modern disciplinary society, individuals are surveilled and controlled by disciplinary institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and factories. These institutions are designed to transform individuals into “docile” self-regulating entities that conform to society’s normative expectations.

“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.” ― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

He says Foucault’s disciplinary society was characterized by “you should not.” In other words, a society where people were controlled through “negative power.” This was the world people lived in for a long time, but Han argues that we now live in a world of “positive power,” where “can’t do” has been replaced with “can.”

He says Foucault’s disciplinary society was characterized by “you should not,” or, in other words, a society where people were controlled through “negative power.” This was the world people lived in for a long time, but Han argues that we now live in a world of “positive power,” where “can’t” has been replaced with “can.”

In a society of “positive power,” people are told they can be whoever they want to be and achieve whatever they desire. All they have to do is dream big, work hard, and constantly chase those dreams. In this society, nobody tells people they “can’t,” but rather, people are motivated because they are led to believe they “can” achieve anything.

“Positive power”—what a provocative conception of modern society!

This is positive power, positive power. Says “can,” negative power says “should,” and as Han says, “Can is much more effective than the negativity of should.” Therefore, the social unconscious switches from should to can. — Philosophize This!

The achievement society

Positive control has turned the world into an “achievement society.”

This is a new, interesting, positive form of control we are living in, what Han calls an achievement society, not a disciplinary society. Nobody holds a gun to your head and tells you what to do anymore; again, that’s an old-fashioned tactic at this point.

All you have to do to control people is tell them all the stuff that they can be doing in theory if only they make themselves valuable enough, if only they work hard enough to make their minds as efficient and optimized as they possibly can be. What Han calls psychopolitics is an extension of Foucault’s biopolitics.

You tell people that, and you don’t need a gun to people’s heads because in the pursuit of endlessly maximizing their abilities, they’ll spend the rest of their lives going crazy about never being good enough, never doing enough, never being efficient enough.

If there’s ever a moment where they’re not spending their time being as productive as they possibly could towards making themselves more valuable, they will actually feel bad about. — Stephen West of Philosophize This! explaining what Byung-Chul Han means.

In modern society, we have all become “entrepreneurs of the self.” We have all become our own personal projects. It’s you versus the world, and if you don’t continually improve, you lose. The result of this Hunger Games-like reality is that we are constantly optimizing our lives. If you stop optimizing and improving yourself to take a moment to smell the roses, you lose. You are a commodity, and the only way you can win is to increase your value. You must constantly “invest” in yourself, even if it means sacrificing things like friendships, because they are pointless distractions in the journey to the ultimate optimized self.

Practically everybody is not a person anymore; they’re their own little personal project. We turn ourselves into a commodity with market value. Everything we learn is not just learning anymore; it’s an investment in ourselves. Everything is about mentally optimizing yourself, working, producing more efficiently with your mind, and it’s a beautiful way to go through life, by the way. You know, if somebody calls you out for being a narcissist, you can just call them a loser, right? That’s just somebody that’s lazy; they’re not going for their dreams like I am. You know they can’t possibly understand the level of work that this kind of stuff takes.

If you’re in a relationship or a friendship and the other person says you’re focusing too much on yourself and your own projects and it’s causing problems in the relationship, you can just say, “Whoa, whoa, being in a relationship? Too much drama for me at this point in my life. I don’t have room for all that. I gotta focus on me and my market value for a while.” It really is a beautiful set of excuses to make it seem to you like it’s a character deficiency in the other person rather than you focusing entirely on yourself. — Stephen West of Philosophize This! explaining what Byung-Chul Han means.

This culture of endless self-optimization results in burnout. We are unhappy when we don’t achieve our goals and even unhappier when we do achieve them because our brains love the thrill of the chase, not the destination. The dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues stems from this culture that pushes you to always do better.

“Depression—which often culminates in burnout—follows from overexcited, overdriven, excessive self-reference that has assumed destructive traits. The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak. It is tired, exhausted by itself, and at war with itself. Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, on the world, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out. It wears itself out in a rat race it runs against itself.” ― Byung-Chul Han, Müdigkeitsgesellschaft

Anxiety and constant dissatisfaction are the grease in the wheels of capitalism.

We are both masters and slaves

Han is a vocal critic of neoliberalism, the economic ideology that promotes free markets, deregulation, and the individual over the collective. In this environment, individualism reigns as the guiding philosophy of life. It’s just you and nothing else. In this individualistic world characterized by pathological narcissism, there’s no external force oppressing or exploiting us—we are doing it to ourselves. Han employs the poignant metaphor that we are both master and slave, whipping ourselves to death at the altar of neoliberalism.

The consequence of this individualistic and narcissistic society, where people are treated as “human capital,” is that we not only plunder nature but also ourselves. We’re in auto-exploit mode by default until we die.

Many of us are on the verge of suffocation, and this suffocation is called burnout today, as I mentioned earlier. I should actually be free if I am free from the constraints or commands coming from the other house, but I am not free because I myself am the one who creates constraints, constantly inventing my own commands and subjecting myself to them. It’s not the other who oppresses me; rather, I am suffocating myself, even though there is no master making me a slave. I am not free because I am the master who makes myself a slave; I am both master and slave at the same time.

One could simply say that I am plundering myself to death, I am working myself to death, I am optimizing myself to death. The disappearance of the other is a pathological phenomenon of the present; being interconnected is not the same as being connected, especially boundless connectivity weakens the bond of an intense relationship and presupposes the other who eludes my availability. It is only the unavailability of the other that makes closeness possible. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.

Age of narcissism

We’ve all become raging narcissists. However, this rampant narcissism is not the cause but rather the result of the incentives that nudge us to be narcissistic. This phenomenon is prominently displayed on social media platforms, where we incessantly share and overshare all aspects of our lives. All of this feeds into a performative culture where emotions, relationships, work, and achievements are all performances in service of “optimizing” and “improving” various aspects of our lives. Nothing is sacred, and everything is seen as a resource to be exploited.

Today’s consumer society knows a healthier panoptic structure – not solitude through regulation, but overcommunication guarantees transparency. What is special about the digital panopticon, above all, is that its inhabitants actively participate in its construction and maintenance by exhibiting and exposing themselves. Pornographic self-display and panoptic control become one. The actionism and exhibitionism feed the net as a digital panopticon.

The panopticon is perfected where its subject is not controlled by external compulsion, but out of the need to shamelessly expose oneself – where the fear of losing one’s privacy and intimacy becomes the desire to put oneself on display. Google and social networks that present themselves as spaces of freedom are simultaneously digital panopticons.

Today surveillance does not take place as an attack on freedom as is commonly assumed – rather, one voluntarily submits to the panoptic gaze, diligently helping to construct the digital panopticon by stripping and displaying oneself. The inmate of the digital panopticon is thus victim and perpetrator at the same time. This is the dialectic of freedom: freedom turns out to be control. The subjected subject is not even aware of its subjection here; the power structure remains completely hidden from it. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.

Life is a performance, and if we don’t perform hard enough, we don’t get enough points to climb the invisible global scoreboard.

Narcissism is the symptom, not the cause:

But to Byung Chul Han, that’s almost the opposite of what’s going on. The narcissistic individual is not the cause of the world being more narcissistic. The ethos of the world makes narcissism an extremely common lane for people to fall into because they have almost no other options. The same way in former societies it was very common for people to fall into a lane in life like go to school, graduate, go to work, get married, have kids, house, white picket fence… Narcissism is a lane we’re funneling people into in neoliberal society. — Philosophize This!

The Other

One of my favorite observations of Han was the lack of what he calls “the other.” The other is anything that isn’t the same. In other words, the Other is negativity, opposition, pain, opposing views, and disagreements. Han says that

The time in which there was such a thing as the Other is over. The Other as a secret, the Other as a temptation, the Other as eros, the Other as desire, the Other as hell and the Other as pain disappear. The negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same. The proliferation of the Same constitutes the pathological changes that afflict the social body. It is made sick not by denial and prohibition, but by over-communication and over- consumption; not by suppression and negation, but by permissiveness and affirmation. The pathological sign of our times is not repression but depression. Destructive pressure comes not from the Other but from within. — The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today

Han says that everything has become the same because we are all doing the same thing and comparing ourselves to the same people.

“The terror of the same today reaches all areas of life. We traveled all over the place without having any experience. One learns everything without acquiring any knowledge. There is a craving for experiences and stimuli with which, however, one always remains the same as oneself. One accumulates friends and followers without ever experiencing the encounter with someone else. Social media represents a null degree of social.

Total digital interconnection and total communication do not make it easy to meet others. Rather, they serve to find people who are the same and think alike, making us pass by strangers and those who are different, and they ensure that our horizon of experiences becomes narrower and narrower. They don’t entangle us in an endless loop of self and ultimately lead us to a “self-propaganda that indoctrinates us with our own notions.” ― Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Different

Think of the other as a virus. To develop antibodies, you need to be infected. In the same way, we need different perspectives. More of the same leads to intellectual obesity.

Everyone today wants to be authentic, that is, different from others. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same. In other words: the obligation to be authentic leads to the hell of sameness. — Interview with EL PAÍS

The church in our pockets

Perhaps one of the most depressing metaphors that I heard was Han’s comparison of the smartphone to a rosary and beads. We confess to it, but don’t ask for forgiveness, but attention. Every like is akin to an “amen.” We don’t notice that we have become slaves to the smartphone because our brains have been numbed to the constant secretion of dopamine.

Subjection means being subordinate. The smartphone is a digital devotional object, and indeed the emotionalization of the digital in general. To be a subject means to be subjected. As an apparatus of activation, the smartphone functions like a handcuff – in its handiness it also represents a kind of hand iron. Both serve self-surveillance and self-control. Power increases its efficiency by delegating surveillance to every single individual. We are easy digital serfs while clicking Like and sharing. As we do so, we submit to the power structure. The smartphone is not only an effective surveillance device, but also a mobile confessional – confession was a very effective technique of power.

We confess the depths of our soul. Today we live in a digital Middle Ages – we keep confessing, but voluntarily. But we do not ask for forgiveness, but for attention. It is no longer the church but the click and the market that lend us an ear. We live in a digital serfdom, the new lords are called Facebook or Google. They provide us with land for free and tell us to diligently cultivate it. We productively cultivate as we communicate, share, undertake, narrate, fill the timeline. Then the lords come and harvest, and we don’t even notice that we are being exploited. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.

Listen to these episodes:

Achievement Society and the rise of narcissism, depression and anxiety

Everything that connects us is slowly disappearing

BURNOUT SOCIETY by Byung-Chul Han


Good reads

Byung-Chul Han: “I Practise Philosophy as Art”

Our obsession is no longer for objects, but for information and data. Today we produce and consume more information than objects. We actually get high on communication. Libidinal energies have been redirected from objects to nonobjects. The consequence is infomania. We are all infomaniacs now. Object fetishism is probably over. We are becoming information- and data-fetishists. Now there is even talk of datasexuals. Tapping and swiping a smartphone is almost a liturgical gesture, and it has a massive effect on our relationship to the world. Information that doesn’t interest us gets swiped away. Content we like, on the other hand, gets zoomed in, using the pincer movement of our fingers. We literally have a grip on the world. It’s entirely up to us.

We live in an age of extravagance, learning to be content with abundance is the antidote we need

We consume extravagantly without end — yet are always left grasping for more. Such is the pitiful state of modern man. And all the while, that which as been abundantly provided for us, that which is renewable, sustainable, and of superior quality — the wild foods, the well-made durable goods, and the renewable sources of energy — are left underutilised, ignored, and wasted. This is a gross tragedy for as Berry again states in the same essay, “abundance, given moderation and responsible use, is limitless.” — limitless in the most sustainable and satisfying manner.

Lockdown, generational trauma and considerations for living in a post-pandemic world

Over time, I’ve come to realize that DID is also what helps me be a really different, expansive kind of editor: when I’m reading, I pull from a distinct “vault” of knowledge which is filled with memories and sounds of everything I’ve ever read or edited or researched, all weaving together into decades-long patterns of speech, writing and communication. Before knowing I have DID, I’d mercilessly shame myself for not knowing how to “just push through” with an editing task on occasion; now I know how to recognize this resistance as a request for rest (before my editor self is pushed to dissociate in order to get what she needs). As you might imagine, things in my mind are complex, and the work of DID and communicating with my “system of selves” will continue for the rest of my life.

The life of a common reader. “these need no reward… They have loved reading.”

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Repair and Remain. How to do the slow, hard, good work of staying put.

When the flashing sidebar connects that hand lotion, those hiking boots, a beach vacation, or some rugged SUV with satisfaction, joy, and inner peace, it sure feels like we’d be suckers not to buy it. And when that thing inevitably disappoints, we hardly even notice. There’s always something new to buy. That narrative of elusive satisfaction isn’t just something we’re repeatedly being told; it is a story we’re literally buying into all the time. No surprise, then, that when our beloved to whom we once upon a time “pledged our troth” inevitably disappoints, we start thinking it might be time to get a new beloved.


Are you happy with your miserable life? If not, get a credit card and buy the life you want. 0% interest, conditions apply*

The drugification of everything

There’s a weird molecule in your brain. It makes you feel good, makes you look smart whenever you utter its name, and is also responsible for ripping apart families and the fabric of society. It’s gotta be the most destructive molecule known to mankind—more destructive than uranium and plutonium.

Any guesses?

I am talking about dopamine.

It’s the most famous and sexiest molecule ever. Neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell called it the “Kardashian of neurotransmitters.” If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that it’s filled with regrets about not reading all the books I want to. Another book that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time but is cursed by my tsundoku is Dopamine Nation by psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke. One of her videos popped up in my YouTube feed—see, algorithms are not all bad—and I’ve been bingeing on her videos and podcasts all week.

Dopamine is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but very few people understand what it is. It’s the Stephen Hawking book of words—everybody buys his books, but nobody reads them.

Since I’ve heard Anna Lembke’s podcasts, I’m obviously an expert on dopamine. I’m just two PDFs away from being a neuroscientist on the internet. Like, apart from the fact that actual neuroscientists study for a decade, do research, and cut open actual brains, there’s no difference between what I know from listening to podcasts and them. Ok, coming back to dopamine. To understand this mysterious chemical, you need to learn a little bit about the brain. Lucky for you, I’m a neuroscientist.

Neurons, or nerve cells, are the fundamental building blocks of our brains. They are like messengers that are responsible for processing and transmitting information through the body. The way they send biological WhatsApp messages is through electrical and chemical signals. They constantly text various parts of the body to ensure all bodily actions happen on time so that we don’t die. If you are on the LinkedIn website building your professional network and you suddenly and involuntarily pee in your pants, as has happened to many of us, it wasn’t you—it was your incompetent neurons.

Neurons have a gap between them called a synapse. As you can imagine, two neurons can’t communicate with each other if there’s a gap. As far as we know, we don’t have an endogenous neural WiFi network. This is where neurotransmitters come in. They are chemicals that our brain produces to help neurons talk to each other—think of them as ChemFi. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter. Groovy stuff, right?

Duke University CIPHERS project

As soon as I heard one video of Dr. Lembke, I was hooked. Over the course of the week, I listened to several of her conversations, and she’s brilliant. I figured I might as well share a few ideas I picked up from listening to Dr. Lembke:”

Dopamine isn’t just about pleasure; it keeps us alive

Most people assume that dopamine is only pleasure, but that’s like saying the sun is just a dumb, giant ball of fire. You’re not entirely wrong, but you’re not entirely right either. Dopamine is much more complex than just pleasure and reward.

If you think about it, as humans evolved over thousands of years, the primary imperative was survival. That means we are hardwired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Dopamine is the chemical that modulates this behavior.

Dr. Lembke cited a famous study in this talk that illustrates my point:

There’s a very famous experiment where scientists engineered a rat to have no dopamine, and what they discovered was that when they put food into the rat’s mouth, it ate the food and seemed to get pleasure from eating and swallowed the food. But if they put that food even a single body length away, the rat would starve to death, so it wasn’t motivated to get up and go get the food, suggesting indeed that dopamine has this fairly fundamental role not just in the experience of pleasure.

Perhaps dopamine’s most important function is motivation. To get a reward or to feel pleasure, we need to perform certain actions, and dopamine is the catalyst. Dopamine is also linked to movement because rewards require people to move and do things. The abominable Parkinson’s disease is caused by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in a brain region called the substantia nigra. As dopamine production reduces, people with Parkinson’s experience tremors, rigidity, and mobility issues.

You can’t get addicted to dopamine

If you had a rupee for every time you used the phrase “addicted to dopamine hit” or heard other people use it, you’d be rich enough to buy a penthouse suite in Bandra, Mumbai. Dopamine is a chemical naturally produced in the brain, and in a way, it keeps us alive. Our brains naturally produce dopamine at a baseline level:

We’re always releasing dopamine at baseline tonic levels in the brain. It’s kind of like the heartbeat of the brain, and it’s the fluctuations in dopamine firing, either above baseline or below baseline, which influence how we feel, whether or not we’re motivated to do that thing again.

Pleasure and pain are joined at the hip

The same parts of the brain that process pleasure also process pain, and our brains like balance. The brain prefers this balanced state called homeostasis—neither too much pain nor too much pleasure. So whenever you experience pleasure, there’s a price to be paid, and you experience an equal and opposite amount of pain. This is why you feel hungover after getting drunk. Think of pain and pleasure as a see-saw.

The fascinating thing I learned is that whenever we do something pleasurable, such as eating a piece of chocolate, the dopamine levels in our brains spike above baseline. However, what’s interesting is that these dopamine levels don’t return to baseline levels after we finish eating the chocolate. Instead, our brain attempts to restore homeostasis by reducing dopamine production, resulting in a state of dopamine deficit.

Remember, there’s an equal and opposite reaction to pleasure, and this is how pain manifests—in the form of craving. If you don’t feed your cravings, they eventually subside, and dopamine is restored to baseline levels.

But if you give in to your craving and continue eating chocolate, you are increasing the amount of pain you will experience in the future. This is because as long as you continue eating chocolates, dopamine levels will remain high, which your brain dislikes. If you stop eating, you enter a dopamine deficit state because the brain has to reduce dopamine production and bring it back to normal levels. This is why people experience addiction in a dopamine-deficient state. If you don’t continue eating chocolates, you will feel terrible.

The scary part is that once you are in a dopamine deficit state, even if you eat chocolate, you don’t feel pleasure; you just stop feeling pain. In other words, you have to increase the amount of chocolate you eat to experience pleasure. Replace chocolate with cocaine, and this example immediately becomes clear. A drug addict would need to continue increasing the dose just to get the same high because the pain side of the equation keeps increasing in the opposite direction.

Anna Lembke: With repeated use of the same or similar reinforcing substances and behaviors, we eventually end up in this kind of dopamine deficit state. Now we need more of our drug and more frequent doses over time, not to get high, but just to feel normal and stop the craving. This is exactly why people with severe addiction will relapse even weeks after they’ve stopped using, even though they can objectively tell you, “Yes, my life is much better because I’m not using, and my spouse is back, and my job is back, and from a physical health point of view, I’m doing better.” But mentally, many of them are still struggling with those universal symptoms of that dopamine deficit state, which are anxiety, irritability, insomnia, depression, and craving..

Anything can be addictive and anyone can get addicted

Addiction doesn’t discriminate against anyone. Dr. Lembke herself, a renowned psychiatrist who treats people struggling with addiction, was addicted to romance novels. It started with Twilight novels, and then she lost control:

Anna Lembke: Well, it’s always a little embarrassing as these things are. But in my early 40s, I did develop a kind of compulsive attachment, which I think you could fairly call a mild addiction to romance novels. So it started with the Twilight Saga, you might think of The Twilight Saga as my gateway drug. And then I got a Kindle, which was akin to my hypodermic syringe. And it escalated from there over the course of about two years, to what I consider to be a kind of socially sanctioned addiction to erotica, or, you know, pornography for women, if I could phrase it like that. To the point where I was habitually staying up very late at night, reading romance novels.

As soon as I would finish one book, in fact, before I would actually finish it, once I got three quarters of the way through to the climax, I wouldn’t even finish it, I would already be on Amazon looking for the next book. To the point where I was often groggy in the morning, exhausted on my way to work, not fully able to be present for my patients, or my children or my husband.

Several nadir’s in the course of my compulsive behaviours, were, at one point, I did bring a book to work and found myself in the 10 minutes between patients, just wanting to escape and read that book. Once I went to a social event with another family, and found a room where I could read in the middle of the social event. 

Addiction isn’t just about substances; behaviors can be addictive as well. Anything from eating, Instagram, shopping, pornography, seeking attention, exercising, and even drinking water:

So I’ve seen one case of that in my career. It was actually very sad. It was a woman with a very severe alcohol addiction who got into recovery from her alcohol addiction. That is to say, she was no longer consuming alcohol, she was actively working on her health. But somehow or another, she discovered that if she drank water in copious amounts, she could feel altered, and she got addicted to that process. She had several very severe episodes of hyponatremia and almost died from those episodes. — Rewiring Your Dopamine Systems with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anna Lembke

Addiction is a biopsychosocial disease. Biological, psychological, and social factors all play significant roles in influencing addiction. It’s not just an individual thing; factors such as genetics, personality, social situation, and environment can all influence one’s propensity for addiction.

Like, I think we’re all gonna get addicted to something because now that special key that works for each of our individual locks, it’s out there somewhere and the worldwide web will allow us to find it. Having said that, it is true that people bring different degrees of vulnerability to the process of addiction.

We do know that about 50-60% of the risk of becoming addicted is genetic. That’s based on family studies, showing that if you have a biological parent or grandparent addicted to alcohol, you are at increased risk of becoming an alcoholic yourself, even if you’re raised outside of the alcoholic home, in a non-using home. So, that’s powerful genetics.

It’s polygenic, it’s complex, we don’t fully understand it. It’s thought to be related to things like impulse control, ability to delay gratification, emotional dysregulation. But, you know, we don’t really know what it is.

Other risk factors include co-occurring psychiatric disorders. People with psychiatric disorders are more likely to develop an addiction, and also how you were raised. If you had a traumatic experience, as we’ve talked about, that puts you at risk. If you have parents who have explicitly or implicitly condoned substance use, either for recreation or as a coping strategy, that puts you at risk. Things like poverty, unemployment, that puts you at risk.

So there are lots and lots of risk factors, but I think that the major risk factor in the modern world and one which is generally ignored, is simple access. If you have access to a drug, you are more likely to try it and more likely to get addicted to it. And now, as we’ve talked about, we live in a world of virtually infinite access.

I’m still learning the nuances of addiction, and I will write about it in future posts.

The drugification of everything

One of my favorite metaphors that Dr. Anna used was the “drugification” of everything, and that’s so apt. We live in a society where the potency of everything, from food and drugs to content, entertainment, and even leisure, has been amplified. The goal of every corporation is to stimulate our brains to ejaculate the maximum amount of dopamine and keep us coming back for more. The incentive of late-stage capitalism is to turn us into compulsive consumers

Everything is just so readily available now, and it’s never been harder not to get hooked on something. It’s a weird paradox that abundance has become a curse.

Adel: The fact that evolutionarily we’ve had a system that’s got us to the point that we are at now because of our adaptability to avoid pain.

Anna Lembke: That’s exactly right.

Adel: But now we’re in a completely different context.

Anna Lembke: That’s right.

Anna Lembke: And so it is this mismatch between the ancient wiring, which was really intended for a world of scarcity, and the world that we live in now, which is a world of dopamine overload or overwhelming overabundance, in which almost every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the games we play, has been drugified in some way. And when I say drugified, I mean it’s been made more potent, so it releases more dopamine hypothetically than other types of reinforcers. It’s more abundant, meaning that there’s kind of no natural stopping point because it doesn’t run out.

It’s more accessible, and one of the biggest risk factors for addiction is simple access to that drug. And finally, it’s more novel, right? So what we figured out how to do is overcome tolerance to these drugs. Once we acquire tolerance, by, for example, combining two drugs together to make a more potent form of the original drug.

Adel: Yeah, everything you talk about, I can’t help but think about social media on the iPhone, yeah? And in regards to accessibility, right? If that’s a rule of thumb, can you imagine how accessible, and we’re thinking about social media as a drug, right? How accessible is social media? It’s like the most accessible drug, right?

Anna Lembke: Exactly. And I know, you know, in clinical practice, it really was starting in 2001 when the smartphone was invented that we started to see more and more patients coming in with life-threatening pornography addictions, gambling addictions, and then later, video game addiction, social media addiction, shopping addiction, all of these things that were really made possible by the 24/7 mobile access to the internet afforded by the smartphone.

Say no!

There are debilitating addictions to drugs and alcohol that require medical interventions, but for the vast majority of us, our addictions aren’t that serious. The most common addictions outside of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol are probably our dependence on digital devices, social media, shopping, gambling, and work. Social media is particularly pernicious because using platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook activates the same parts of the brain as drugs and alcohol. Being on social media is akin to snorting cocaine.

Before you can fix a problem, you must first acknowledge that there’s a problem. If you are oblivious to your addictions, then you don’t have a problem. Then comes acceptance. This is the hard part because we, as humans, possess the dangerous ability to rationalize anything, from bingeing on burgers to committing genocides.

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”

Robert A. Heinlein

While accepting a problem sounds nice in theory, it’s complicated in practice. There’s no bright line that separates addictive and non-addictive behavior, and the intensity of addictive behavior differs between individuals. According to Dr. Lembke, often the only way to determine if we have a problem is to abstain from the activity for a period of time, such as a month.

If you’re smart enough to figure out and accept that you have a problem, Dr. Lembke recommends the deceptively simple practice of dopamine fasting. This is all the rage these days, thanks to Silicon Valley bros and health podcasters, but the idea is simple: stop taking the drug that you like for 30 days.

Why 30 days?

According to Dr. Lembke, a month is the average time it takes for the brain to reset the dopamine pathways back to normal. In other words, your brain goes from a state of dopamine deficit to baseline. Dr. Lembke notes that, apart from people with serious addictions requiring medical interventions, most of her patients start feeling better after 30 days.

Recommended listening and reading

The best thing to do is to read her book. But if you are afflicted by tsundoku like me, then these podcasts are worth listening to:

Dr. Anna Lembke: Dopamine & Decision-Making

Dr. Anna Lembke: Understanding & Treating Addiction

Finding Balance In A Dopamine Overloaded World with Dr Anna Lembke

Jonathan Haidt and his collaborators have been documenting the harms of digital devices and social media in great detail. His newsletter makes for great reading.


Can Humanity Survive AI?

As I thought about this article the day after I read it, it seemed more like parody than reality. It’s a well-written article about the boomers and the doomers in the world of artificial intelligence.

Some fear not the “sci-fi” scenario where AI models get so capable they wrest control from our feeble grasp, but instead that we will entrust biasedbrittle, and confabulating systems with too much responsibility, opening a more pedestrian Pandora’s box full of awful but familiar problems that scale with the algorithms causing them. This community of researchers and advocates — often labeled “AI ethics” — tends to focus on the immediate harms being wrought by AI, exploring solutions involving model accountability, algorithmic transparency, and machine learning fairness.

Pair it with: How AI is quietly changing everyday life

Javier Milei’s Freak Show Act Is a Taste of Things to Come

It might very well be true that what we are seeing right now marks the end of a moderate, centrist version of “open society” neoliberalism, so appealing for decades even to many on the erstwhile social democratic left. But the rising popularity of more extreme forms of libertarianism around the world should caution us that market radicalism isn’t simply going to disappear. Instead, it is consolidating its ideology and returning to its cultural roots.

How to Grow a Garden in the Technopoly

A portrait of how people are actively resisting the encroachment of technology into all aspects of life.

So technology—and everything that we are stewards of—needs to bend to those principles. I love how Andy Crouch puts it in his very helpful book The Tech-Wise Family: Everything should be in its proper place, and that goes for our tools and time as well as toys and books and kitchen utensils. What Crouch also notes is that stating your family goals explicitly—such as growth in wisdom and courage—helps you to discern whether a certain tool is needed for a task. (As one of my dad’s sayings goes, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” And the corollary, of course, is just because other people are doing it doesn’t mean you should.) Will this help me, or my child, grow in wisdom and courage? Does this practice help cultivate attention, and appreciation of beauty and truth and goodness?

The Stars, Our Destination?

Why Space Is Watery (And So Very Far Away)

I regret not discovering Mike Sowden earlier. Ridiculously wonderful pieces! Must read!


Throw your phone away and go snort some grass. Not that grass. I mean grass.

Selling our soul, one tiny bit at a time

I don’t know why; it might be sheer coincidence or algorithmic manipulation, but I keep coming back to the topic of information consumption.

In last week’s post, I wrote about how our reliance on algorithms for our informational needs might be turning us into dull and unremarkable individuals with generic tastes and views. I also wrote a bit of a confessional about how my own information consumption patterns might be buggered.

A few weeks ago, I heard Liv Boeree on the Triggernometry podcast talk about the fucked-up state of the media, and I’ve been letting the conversation simmer in my head. When I was thinking about what to write this week, the conversation popped into my head because it’s a natural extension of what I wrote last week.

Here are a few ideas from the conversation:

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