From the dumpster fire

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

The wonders in between pages

Assorted links

I fell sick last week and had one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. It was so bad I couldn’t look at screens even if I longed for them, like cocaine addicts long for cocaine. So I couldn’t get around to writing anything.

I also realized that one of the reasons I started publishing this newsletter was to share interesting links, which I used to do in the beginning but not anymore. I started by sharing links but ended up publishing rambling essays on random things that I got fascinated with in a given week. It wasn’t planned, but something that just ended up happening, and I’m happy that it did.

So this week, I figured I’d share a bunch of amazing articles across different topics so that you can find a rabbit hole to get lost in.


The many joys of aimless reading

The Substack app has become my go-to source for discovering new writing. I don’t know if the app will remain as good as it is, but so far, I’ve found some truly insightful writing on a whole host of topics. I can confidently say that some of the best writers of our time are on Substack. By that, I don’t mean popular writers but rather people with tiny audiences that have yet to hit mainstream.

Every morning, I scroll through the app and save a few posts for reading later. So far, I haven’t been able to read all the posts I’ve saved, but I’ve been trying. This morning, I finally found time to read, and among the first posts I perused was this delightful post (archive) by Jared Henderson that had me nodding along in agreement.

The post is on why students are reading. He starts by pointing to the usual suspects of why people don’t read: the negative impact of the pandemics on students, the testing culture, horrible teaching backed by terrible theories, the ubiquity of smartphones, etc. But he also identifies another crucial reason why we don’t read—we are gatekeeping ourselves:

Gatekeeping is usually conceived of as an interpersonal violation. The gatekeeper is preventing someone else from being included in whatever is at issue. But very often, the person who is preventing you from crossing the bridge (to go back to the troll metaphor) is you. If you want to read The Economist, say, but don’t because you don’t think you fit the profile, then you are your own troll. You are the one doing the gatekeeping, and the person being kept out is you.

And this is what I believe is happening with students and reading, at least in part. They have convinced themselves that they aren’t readers. They have convinced themselves that reading old books, especially difficult old books, is just too arduous, too boring, too pointless. They have convinced themselves that even if the books are good and soul-enriching, there are better things to be doing with their time.

I picked up a reading habit thanks to my dad. He grew up in an environment where he couldn’t read, even though he desperately wanted to, so he put a premium on educating me and my brother. He was also quite smart. He made sure we weren’t just reading textbooks but other random things like magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, and other books. I still remember trips as a young, runny-nosed kid to Sapna Book House in Gandhinagar on my dad’s rickety Bajaj Chetak.

I’ve always read random things, but after college, I stopped reading books. My reading diet was filled with online reading, but this wasn’t enough. So I made a conscious effort to start reading books again, and now I regret ever stopping.

As someone who’s remarkably average at most things, I’ve realized that life is a steady process of chipping away at one’s ignorance and stupidity. Books help you do that. Of course, you can’t learn everything from books. You’ve gotta live a little and then learn from life. But books are a part of that toolbox that helps you be a little less dumb in life.

Another aspect of the article that resonated with me was the obsession with reading metrics. It’s also something I struggle with, but I’m slowly starting to let go.

We like to measure our successes, and when we don’t measure up we consider it a failure. This carries over into adult reading culture still — people set ambitious reading goals based on books or pages, and they feel good if (and only if) they meet those goals. It’s a metrics-based way of looking at the world. This culture is everywhere, and students are sensitive to it.

Last weekend, when I was sick, I couldn’t look at screens because they made my splitting headaches worse. I also couldn’t read anything dense, so I picked up Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I must have devoured the first 300 out of 900 pages over the weekend. As I was reading the book, I remembered the pure joy of reading aimlessly.

Pair this with another brilliant post (archive) by Olga Koutseridi that resonated deeply with me.

In this post, Olga reflects on another post about how she has lost her habit of researching just for the sake of researching, without any specific goal. The post struck a chord with me because exploring without a goal is something I’ve tried to do all my life.

What does research as a way of life look like on a daily basis? It’s a day that’s driven by curiosity and exploration. A day full of inquiry, pondering, questioning, reading, finding, writing, revising, documenting, excavating, and editing. A day when you have the freedom to explore; be it browsing grocery store aisles, talking to urban farmers, cycling through the city, noticing things and how they change, make observations about new and old patterns, talking to people at the bus stop, foraging, or browsing the internet.

I am carving out time for leisure and research. I’m blocking off time on my calendar as leisure blocks, and using that time to download pdfs, make lists of books or cookbooks, organizing and managing my databases, reading, and re-organizing files on my computer, in Notion, and opening way too many tabs. I’m also breaking up my time to do different forms of research be it archival, qualitative research, going to the library (partially leisure), browsing online databases, taking notes, talking and asking people questions, and documenting.

To be honest, for me the whole point of life centers around discovery or a sense of adventure that comes from learning, seeing, or experiencing something new. Research is a way of life for me. I am an endlessly curious person.

Pair this with Rose Macaulay’s exquisite meditation (archive) on being left alone:

An exquisite peace obtains: a drowsy, golden peace, flowing honey-sweet over my dwelling, soaking it, dripping like music from the walls, strowing the floors like trodden herbs. A peace for gods; a divine emptiness.

[…]

The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand… The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf on to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

What to do with all this luscious peace? It is a gift, a miracle, a golden jewel, a fragment of some gracious heavenly order, dropped to earth like some incredible strayed star. One’s life to oneself again. Dear visitors, what largesse have you given, not only in departing, but in coming, that we might learn to prize your absence, wallow the more exquisitely in the leisure of your not-being.

How does an egg become a person?

How does a single cell become a full-grown human being capable of running, climbing mountains, and generating farts of varying smells? In this fascinating post (archive), Kasra explores the work of developmental and synthetic biologist Michael Levin.

Back to the question of how a cell becomes a person: Our genes aren’t the full answer. Apparently, cells have bioelectrical networks similar to neurons in the brain that allow them to communicate and coordinate. These bioelectrical networks, from what I understand, are like cell phone networks. They talk to each other using this network to decide whether they should develop into a leg, liver, or kidney.

The worm is just one example: Levin’s lab and others have already demonstrated an astonishing level of control over development by modulating bioelectric networks. They’ve done things like getting frogs to develop extra limbs, and getting them to develop an eye in their gut, or an eye in their tail that they can actually see out of. The end goal that Levin dreams of is an “anatomical compiler” – a program which takes as input a specification for an arbitrary organ or body plan, and outputs the specific set of chemical and electrical signals needed to generate that organ. Imagine 3-d printing entire synthetic organs and organisms, except instead of having to specify all the micro-level details, you can just give a high-level description like “an extra eye at the tail.” This is Dall-E but for biology. And in the very long run, it could be the answer to virtually all of biomedicine, including traumatic injury, birth defects, degenerative disease, cancer, and aging.6

So on a practical level, the impact of Levin’s work is a shift away from genes as the only determinant of structure, shifting instead towards the bioelectric network. But there’s a broader thesis here, which is recognizing that the terms “intelligence” and “cognition” apply to much more of biology than we tend to think. The very process of development has an intelligence of its own: for example, if you take a tadpole (the precursor to a frog), and manually scramble its facial organs, those facial organs will relocate back to the correct place as the tadpole matures.

Fascinating stuff, but I’m not qualified to judge if this is all accurate.

Enough

One of the weird things about being human is that we are never content with what we have, where we are, who we are, who we are with, or what we want. We think the present state of everything sucks and strive for some ideal of perfection that lies in the future. Because of this tendency, even though we are physically in the present, we mentally live in the future. I enjoyed this beautiful and thought-provoking post (archive) by Isabel.

Much of maturity is this slow, burning realization that the Inner Ring is never quite as glamorous, sparkly, or magical as you think it will be—and noticing that what you already have is pretty damn good. You go somewhere beautiful and glamorous, but feel relieved to come back home to the people you love. You move somewhere to make new friends, but are eager to come back to those who know you deeply already. Maturing is this process of realizing that where you are, the people you’re around, the blessings you have, the city you live in—contain so much abundance that you could hardly behold it if you were to pause and feel it fully.

There will always be something shiny, glossy and new that stirs desire in you. This is the world we live in: we are mimetically inducing desires into each other constantly—a phenomenon that was happening long before we had coined the label ‘influencers’. Since the beginning of time, we have been imitating those at the top of the hierarchy, desiring the objects and symbols possessed by those inside the Inner Ring.

And hey, don’t get me wrong: desires can be fun. Striving, pursuing, attaining are all natural aspects of being human. But we don’t always need to be in pursuit, yearning for more. We can build resilience to this constant onslaught of desire. There is a way to pause and float above it all, to be where you are, to enjoy what you already have.

We’ve all forgotten how to stop and smell the roses.

Pair this post with another all-time favorite post (archive) of mine by Hadden Turner.

But perhaps the most important reason I must return my gaze to Chelmsford is that this city, its people, and its wildlife lay a claim on me — a claim of responsibility which every inhabitant of every city, town or village has — to do good to the place you are in and one day leave it in a more convivial state than you first came to it. Where you are is where you are — and is where you must be4. As Wendell Berry wisely once said “Do you think it could be a general rule that the only place one is urgently needed is at home?” The more I have pondered these wise words, the more heartily I find myself answering “yes”.

Effective altruism or bullshit?

I’m halfway through this brilliant essay (archive) on effective altruism by P. Jordan Anderson it’s both brilliant and dense. It’s a wonderful primer to one of the most viral charitable moments of the 21st century. Pair it with David Pinsof’s brilliant post (archive):

You’ve gotta live it

An insightful and thoughtful post (archive) by Alex Perez on why most journalism has gone to shit. He argues that journalism was once dominated by people from ordinary and working-class backgrounds, but it’s now filled with people who can afford elite degrees and have lived relatively cosseted lives. When you no longer have people who understand cultural realities, class conflicts, and racial inequalities, you get journalism that is not just puerile but also one-dimensional.

You see the dumb opinions that result from an inability to understand the lived reality of the vast majority of people in Indian media as well. Snotty, elitist opinions, and ceaseless pontification about social matters that one couldn’t remotely fathom from the comfort of one’s privilege.

The relative absence of the adjacent figure in mainstream media—whether on the progressive or conservative side—has resulted in a sterilized environment, of two bubbles perpetually battling each other. It’s always been difficult for the adjacent figure to penetrate the elite world, but as the two bubbles have consolidated in their mutual obsession with each other, the marginal critic has been squeezed out. The difficulty lies in the ability of the adjacent figure to navigate disparate social scenes with the necessary authenticity to be allowed entry. He must understand the norms and nuances of elite culture, while simultaneously keeping a foot in the lower classes. It isn’t a matter of merely code-switching, as the differences between elite and non-elite go beyond conversational differences; it involves the far more difficult task of status switching—navigating between the rich world and the poor world. The adjacent figure, in elite spaces, may look the part and even sound the part, but something will always be slightly off. Maybe he still doesn’t know which fork to use or how to feel comfortable around old money. When the journalism world was slightly more working-class, the status switch wasn’t as difficult to navigate, but now a lower-class outsider must be attuned to the perpetually shifting language rules and norms. It probably isn’t worth the work for the outsider, and so he tends to leave, and the bubble consolidates again. Meanwhile, the status switch upon returning to the non-elite-world is just as jarring. 

Other notable reads

What Would Make Americans Eat Better? (archive)

India Steps Back From the Brink (archive)

Ecuador’s Risky War on Narcos (archive)

Get lost in poetic reveries

See the light and get lost in it.

A couple of months ago, I started reading The Poetics of Space by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. It is by far one of the most enriching, rewarding, and delightful books I have ever read. It’s not a book that lends itself easily to description. While it’s nominally about unpacking the many meanings of home, it’s much more than that.

It’s one of those rare books in which very little is explicit. It’s written so that every reader is forced to dream and let their imagination run wild, so that they can reclaim old meanings and conjure new ones about the humble abode we all take for granted. It’s a delightfully messy and abstract book that’s filled with all sorts of detours, from poetry, philosophy, and psychology to botany.

Once you read the book, you will see your home, which lives within you and cocoons you from the outside, in a new light. As you read the book, you will be forced to step outside your own body and construct vivid daydreams about everything from the cupboards and chests to the roofs and stairs.

Your childhood dreams and memories will come rushing into your consciousness, like a dammed-off river that’s set free. You will remember the warmth and safety that your first house provided you with, so that you could swim in the deepest oceans, climb the tallest mountains, and bask in the warm afterglow of distant stars.

Once you read the book, you will never see your house the same way again. You will feel a certain kinship with the place, which is your own little safe corner in this vast universe—your own universe. Gaston Bachelard makes even the simple profound. I’m inordinately grateful that I found this little book and got to read it.

Throughout the book, Bachelard includes wonderful poems from some luminous poets across the ages. The last time I read a poem was in my undergrad English class more than a decade ago. After that, I don’t think I’ve read a single poem. I now regret that.

I have no recollection of the magic of poetry. It had forgotten the ability of poems to make the ineffable, effable.

Poetry is the language that sits really close to feelings that defy language. Poetry nudges some of our feelings of joy or confusion or desire toward feelings that we can recognize and describe. I take solace in the fact that it’s poems that we turn to in big moments of change — like the loss of someone or a marriage or the birth of a child — because poems are resourceful for finding terms that remind us of what we live with but don’t always bring into speech. — Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate

I was a latecomer to poetry — an art form I did not understand and, as we tend to do with what we do not understand, discounted. But under its slow seduction, I came to see how it shines a sidewise gleam on the invisible and unnameable regions of being where the truest truths dwell, the most difficult and the most beautiful; how it sneaks in through the backdoor of consciousness to reveal us more fully to ourselves; how it gives us an instrument for paying attention, which is how we learn to love the world more. — Maria Popova

The Poetics of Space is sprinkled with verses from the greatest conductors of imagination, such as Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Charles Péguy, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Supervielle, Tristan Tzara, Henri Michaux, and Rainer Maria Rilke—poets that I hadn’t heard of.

So, I started reading a little bit of poetry and also bought a few books. Then I realized that you don’t even have to buy a book. Many of the greatest poems ever written are in the public domain. So I decided to read one poem a week and share it here in the hopes that it might move you.

I’m also creating a separate section called “Poetic Reveries.” The name is inspired by Poetics of Space. It’s also the title of another of Bacherald’s books called The Poetics of Reverie, which I’ve yet to read.

In itself, revery constitutes a psychic condition that is too frequently confused with dream. But when it is a question of poetic revery, of revery that derives pleasure not only from itself, but also prepares poetic pleasure for other souls, one realizes that one is no longer drifting into somnolence. The mind is able to relax, but in poetic revery the soul keeps watch, with no tension, calmed and active. To compose a finished, well-constructed poem, the mind is obliged to make projects that prefigure it. But for a simple poetic image, there is no project; a flicker of the soul is all that is needed.

Poetic revery, unlike somnolent revery, never falls asleep. Starting with the simplest of images, it must always set the waves of the imagination radiating.

— From The Poetics of Space


The first poem I wanted to share is “In the Light” by Kamini Roy, the legendary Bengali poet, activist, and teacher. I came across the poem in the wonderful Poem-a-Day newsletter by the Academy of American Poets.

It’s an evocative and stirring poem that celebrates the miracle life. One of the curses of modernity is that we often get stuck in mechanistic routines and become zombie-like. We allow our sense of joy, awe, and wonderment to be stifled; we lose reverence for life, and this is a tragedy. I hope this poem stirs you so that you start seeing the light.

In the Light

Kamini Roy

We are indeed children of Light. What an endless mart goes on in the Light. In the Light is our sleeping and waking, the play of our life and death. 

Beneath one great canopy, in the ray of one great sun, slowly, very slowly, burn the unnumbered lamps of life. 

In the midst of this unending Light I lose myself; amidst this intolerable radiance I wander like one blind. 

We are indeed children of Light. Why then do we fear when we see the Light? Come, let us look all around and see, here no man hath cause for any fear. 

In this boundless ocean of Light, if a tiny lamp goes out, let it go; who can say that it will not burn again? 


Did the poem move you?

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Slouching towards Armageddon

Earlier this week, I was listening to a podcast episode with macro strategist Whitney Baker, and she mentioned George Soros’ theory of reflexivity:

It’s just the idea that a certain cause will create an effect, and that will then create another cause that kind of works in a circular way. So you can think about anything like a virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle as having some degree of self-reinforcing reflexivity.

In simple terms, it’s the idea that investors are not rational and have various biases and cognitive flaws. Given these limitations, when investors make decisions, they are acting based on subjective views of reality. These actions lead to self-reinforcing feedback loops that affect the actions of other investors, which in turn reinforce similar behavior, leading to boom and bust cycles. You can read about the idea in detail in Soros’ own words here if you are interested.

Anyway, I was bored of listening to finance podcasts, and I started listening to a podcast about World War 1. Learning about WWI has long been on my wish list, but I never got around to it. The list of regrets in my life is only matched by the number of books I want to read but haven’t read yet.

The podcast was decent, but I was searching for a better show. I then remembered that a week ago, a colleague had mentioned that he was listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. If you have never heard of the podcast, then shame on you. It’s arguably one of the greatest podcasts ever, and it has done more to popularize podcasts than anything or anyone else.

Dan Carlin had narrated a six-part series on the history of WWI called Blueprint for Armageddon that’s about 23 hours long. I had heard one or two episodes several years ago, but I had forgotten about them, so I started listening again. I finished the first episode, and it’s bloody brilliant. The sheer breadth and depth of research that’s gone into making the series is insane. It’s like listening to the summaries of several great tomes on the Great War.

What makes the show special compared to other WWI podcasts is Dan Carlin’s deep, gravelly, and intense voice. There’s something about his tone. The man’s voice can evoke an orchestra of bloody and violent horrors in your head. The undulating intensity of his voice slowly heightens the tension and keeps you hooked.

Your imagination lights up as you listen to him, and you become a witness to history as his voice deftly guides you through one of the bloodiest phases of humanity. From the great halls in which weak men made fateful decisions to the killing fields that consumed millions, history comes alive. Carlin is a true Sherpa of history.

As I heard the first episode, I couldn’t help but think of George Soros’s theory of reflectivity. The events leading up to the First World War were a textbook case of reflexive feedback loops. One fateful action triggered another, and the whole world, which was peaceful just a few weeks before, was in flames.

While World War I was a fight between European powers, it touched the entire world through colonial connections. Over 1.5 million Indians, 1+ million Africans, 400,000+ Australians, and hundreds of thousands more from Canada and New Zealand served in the war. Several bloody battles were fought across Africa.

I work in finance, and the one thing that the markets beat into you is the fact that the future is uncertain and things can change on a dime. You also learn that most things that you do to reduce uncertainty are a road to ruin. I had a newfound appreciation for this fact as I listened to the series. Let me explain what I mean. But before that, I’m not an expert on World War 1, and what I’m about to describe is a very broad and deliberately superficial outline. So please don’t post mean comments. I have low self-esteem, and I will cry.

Slouching towards Armageddon

In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it was administering. This created deep resentment among Serbians who dreamed of their own independent nation. So in June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie decided to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, there was a mood of tense anticipation. The date for the visit was set for June 28, 1914. It would prove to be a fateful day.

Nationalist passions were intense in Serbia and Bosnia. Their antagonism toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire had given birth to several nationalist organizations. One such group was called the Black Hand, a secret military society formed by officers in the Serbian army.

The Black Hand decided to take advantage of the archduke’s visit and assassinate him because they saw him as a threat to their independence. On that fateful day of June 28th, they lined up seven assassins at various points to assassinate the archduke.

Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, made their way through Sarajevo in an open car. As the convoy passed, the first assassin, a Bosnian-Serb named Nedeljko Cabrinovic, threw a hand grenade at the archduke’s car. There’s no agreement on what happened next. Some accounts suggest that the driver may have heard a loud noise and decided to accelerate, causing the grenade to bounce off the car, while others say that the archduke may have swatted the grenade away.

The archduke was unfazed and decided to continue the day as planned. He goes to the city hall as scheduled and delivers a speech. After this, Franz Ferdinand decided to visit the hospital to check on the injured before he left. It was decided to change the route for security reasons, but not all drivers understood this.

On the way, the archduke’s driver took a wrong turn, and realizing his mistake, he stopped to back up. As fate would have it, he stops directly in front of 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins. Princip steps forward and fires two shots, killing the archduke and the duchess Sophie.

With a wrong turn and two shots, the entire continent would be at war in just a few weeks. Of course, the assassination wasn’t the cause, but one of many that triggered the war.

Here’s Dan Carlin’s vivid description of the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand from first episode of the podcast “Blueprint for Armageddon”:

The person who was closest to the whole thing was Count von Harrach, who was on the running board, not doing that great of a job apparently at security. He says as soon as the shots were fired, they reversed the car, and he later testified this quote: “As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right cheek. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, ‘For God’s sake, what has happened to you?’ At that, she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car with her face between his knees.

I had no idea that she too was hit and thought that she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for the children!’ At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform to stop his head drooping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, ‘It is nothing.’ His face began to twist somewhat, but he went on repeating six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, ‘It’s nothing.’ Then came a brief pause, followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat caused by the loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor’s residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building, where their death was soon established.”End quote.

As a way to sort of prove that the old adage “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is true, you have only to note that among Serbs today, many will consider Gavrilo Princip a heroic figure, someone who fired the first shots that started a chain of events that, while it would be horrible in both world wars for the Serbian people, eventually led to a time when those countries exist without having to be just simply a province in some other major superpower’s territories.

I still can’t wrap my head around the sheer improbability of the fact that WWI was triggered all because of a wrong turn. Now, of course, the archduke’s assassination wasn’t the only cause of the great war. It just lit a spark in the dynamite-laden cracks in the peace between the great European powers of the era.

The Europe of this era was a multipolar world with several superpowers. After the horrific and destructive Napoleonic Wars, almost all of the major powers had mutual defense treaties with each other.

Wikipedia

From episode 1 of Blueprint for Armageddon:

This is the era of a very complex web of alliances that bind European countries to each other. It’s perhaps the most enduring work of Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century German diplomat who played a very large role in the foundation of modern Germany. Bismarck also played a huge role in creating a system of alliances that both expanded Germany’s possibilities while at the same time preserving general peace in Europe.

There were wars between Napoleon and the First World War, and some of them were directly the fault of Bismarck, but there wasn’t a general European conflict involving all the major powers. Let’s not forget that this is an era that we would today call a multipolar world, which is hard for us to understand in an era of one or two superpowers. Europe during this time period had at least five first-rate power states: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many people throw in Turkey and Italy too, which would make seven. These states were all bound to each other with complex alliance systems, and complex is the way Bismarck wanted it.

Bismarck had set it up so that basically, no matter what happened, he was in the driver’s seat. This worked unbelievably well, especially for German interests but also for European interests as a whole, for a long time. However, by the time 1914 rolls around, this genius who created this system that’s so complex only he knew how to run it had been fired by the leader of Germany. Now, this complex machine that the genius of Bismarck had created and run was being run by people who couldn’t carry his jockstrap, as we used to say.

It was inevitable that something like that would break down. The reason that the Austro-Hungarians didn’t just march into Serbia the minute they found out that the Serbs were responsible for killing their heir to the throne is that they knew that would mean war with Russia.

After the archduke’s assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire seeks the help of its ally Germany, because if it invades Serbia, then Russia will step in to help the Serbs. There’s no agreement among historians on this, but the German Kaiser Wilhelm II is supposed to have given the Austrians a blank check to deal with the Serbians.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire gives the Serbians an ultimatum with a list of demands that’s impossible to meet. Serbia chooses to comply with most of the demands, but this wasn’t enough for the Austrians, and on July 28th, they declare war on Serbia. In response, Russia orders a mobilization of its troops to support the Serbs.

The Germans send an ultimatum to the Russians to stop mobilization, which Russia ignores. On August 1st, Germany declares war on Russia. France had a mutual defense treaty with Russia and a plan to mobilize its troops. Within one month of the assassination, four major powers in Europe were at war.

Britain was the only superpower remaining on the sidelines. Now, Britain had carefully managed to avoid any permanent alliances. It had a gentleman’s agreement with France to come to its aid, but it wasn’t binding, so it decided to stay on the sidelines. But it wouldn’t last long.

Germany had a serious problem—it was encircled on both sides by its enemies. On one side, it shared a border with Russia, and on the other, it shared a border with France. Its worst nightmare had come true, and it was now at war with both countries.

The National Museum of Australia

However, Germany had planned for this eventuality for a long time. Germany’s plan for a two-front war with Russia and France involved sending a massive number of troops to quickly defeat France and then running back to fight the Russians. The assumption here was that it would take a long time for Russia to mobilize its low-tech army across such a large geography.

Peacetime strategic planning was relatively new in Europe (in the Crimean War the British and French had first declared war and then decided how to fight it). It had started in Prussia, and after Bismarck’s victories in 1866 and 1870 it was copied elsewhere. Recent research has shown the war plans were more adaptable than Taylor suggested and were subject to regular revision: the French in 1914 implemented their Plan XVII and the Russians Plan XIX Altered, while the German plan was a rolling document amended every year.

We now also know that many military chiefs envisaged a conflict that so far from being over by Christmas would last at least eighteen months. Even so, in the summer and autumn of 1914 the belligerents’ war plans almost uniformly failed.

The German plan (best referred to as the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan) entailed moving the bulk of the field army westwards to defeat France quickly by wheeling through Belgium and outflanking the modern fortresses the French had built along the Franco-German border. The more archaic Belgian fortresses round Liège and Namur could be overcome quickly by mobile heavy artillery, and the French had left their northern frontier largely unfortified.

But there was a problem: The mutual border that France shared with Germany was one of the most fortified places on the planet. With enough time, Germany could smash through them but they didn’t have time. If they took time, Russia would be in Berlin by then. So Germany had only one option: hit France on the other side, which is lightly defended, but there was again a problem here.

On the other side, France didn’t share a border with Germany, but with Belgium and Luxembourg, both of which were neutral states. In a tragic twist of fate, in 1839, Britain had promised to protect Belgium’s neutrality if it was violated. Germany had no option but to go through Belgium, and Britain was dragged into the war, and the whole continent was in flames.

In a sense, the Great War was a series of tragic coincidences that happened all at once. Of course, the nominal cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but there were deep fissures in Europe. Historians still bicker about who or what caused the war, but the reality is there isn’t just one person or country to blame, even though many historians do.

Here’s an excerpt from historian Margaret Macmillan’s wonderful talk on the causes of WWI:

But when you try to find the causes of the First World War, I think you’re looking at everything from individuals, and I think individual decisions in fact do at various points make a difference, but you’re also looking at the world in which those decisions were made. You’re looking at the values of that world, the assumptions of that world, the tensions in that world. And so you have to take into account such things as national rivalries, economic rivalries, competition for colonies. You have to, I think, look at the arms race, which was becoming increasingly expensive and increasingly important in Europe in the years just before 1914. You have to look at the military plans.

I sometimes feel as if what you’re doing when you’re trying to understand the First World War is trying to understand a chess game which is played on three different boards, at least, all of them connected so that moving a pawn or a queen or a castle on one board affects something on the other two boards.

The best explanation I’ve come up with, which is not, as you will see, a very satisfactory one, is that what happened in 1914 was very much like a perfect storm. A number of things came together in a particular sequence which made what might have been yet another crisis in the Balkans (because there had been several crises in the Balkans before 1914) uncontrollable. And once Europe had got into the war, it became very, very difficult to stop it. The war turned out to be much longer than most people who had been making decisions, and most people who had been watching those decisions, could ever have expected.Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published. — Explaining the Outbreak of the First World War.

Aside: She’s also The author of The War That Ended Peace: 

The cost of the war was dear. Not just in terms of money or blood, but in terms of how it shaped the world after. Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful talk that Christopher Clark, the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, gave:

This war in particular, I think, has rightly been described as the primal catastrophe. The term is Kennan’s, George Kennan originally, the primal catastrophe of the 20th century. It’s been widely taken up in the German language historiography, the “Urkatastrophe”.

“Urkatastrophe” has a kind of, I don’t know, a hairy, scary sort of feel to it, which “primal catastrophe” doesn’t, but in any case, it consumed, and this term “primal catastrophe” is now controversial. The point has been made that, you know, this war was not a primal catastrophe for everybody. It wasn’t for the Baltic states or for Poland.

Everybody, but it is, I think, if we think about the amount of poison released into the European political system by this war, about its destabilizing effect on global politics, about its long-term consequences in the Middle East, it is, I think, right to think of this war, in its global frame, as a primal catastrophe. It consumed four great empires: the German Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and of course, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All were consumed in the cauldron of this war.

More importantly, it caused the deaths of between 10 and 13 million young men. These are just military deaths on its numerous fields of conflict. The global statistics about wounded men are not very reliable, but the estimates sort of oscillate between 15 and 21 million wounded men. And I’m not talking here about lightly wounded men who were treated in theater or in local field hospitals just behind the front, but men who had carried serious wounds, many of whom felt the effects of these wounds right through until the end of their lives.

And so I think that Fritz Stern, the German-American Jewish historian, a wonderful historian, is right when he says that this is the disaster out of which all the disasters of the 20th century sprang. It’s very difficult to imagine the rise and seizure of power of fascism in Italy without this war. It’s difficult to imagine the October Revolution in the Russian Empire without the First World War.

Everybody predicted something like the February Revolution: collapse of tsarist autocratic authority, a seizure of power by a sort of middling coalition of political entities, you know, right-wing social democrats perhaps, Kadets (Constitutional Democrats), nationalists, and so on. But no one had foreseen the coup-like takeover of power by the Bolsheviks and the creation thereafter of a one-party state under Bolshevik control, which of course in its course was attended by a further Russian Civil War that consumed yet another 5 to 7 million lives.

Again, we don’t have very good statistics, and of course, it’s difficult to imagine German history taking the disastrous and appalling turn that it took in the direction of Nazism and of the Holocaust without the titanic pressures brought to bear on German society and, above all, on German political culture by this vast conflict.

Fingerprints of the past

As I heard Dan Carlin describe in great detail how the world sleepwalked into a catastrophe of epic proportions, I couldn’t help but think of modern-day parallels. Today’s world, has many of the hallmarks of Europe prior to 1914. It may be the human brain’s tendency to seek patterns, our instinctive impulse to look to the past to understand the present, or maybe I’m an idiot who doesn’t understand history, but it’s hard not to see the similarities to the world before World War I.

You also hear many of the same arguments that were put forth before World War I as to why a war is unlikely. From Dan Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon I:

They’ve been snapping up books like The Great Illusion, written by Norman Angell where the historians point out how influential this book was. Angell is trying to explain to the people in that time period that this war that continually gets threatened, like the Russian Roulette trigger being pulled, is never going to happen. It can’t happen.

The world has become too interdependent in that time period; there’s too much globalization. This is the early period where all that starts, where you have the telegraph providing instant communication, and the railroads and the shipping lines, and trade had never been higher, wealth had never been grander, and Europe was at the height of its financial power, and Britain was at the height of everybody’s financial power. Why would you mess with that economic situation?

Guys like Angell were saying that what had happened is it was so profitable to simply do business as usual that there was nothing worth going to war over. What Angell was saying is that anything you would gain by launching a war would be dwarfed by what you would lose by destroying the system that was allowing everyone to make so much money. There’s an old line that when goods don’t cross borders, armies will. Well, this is the opposite situation. Their goods are crossing borders like crazy.

So guys like Angell tell you that, you know, because of that formula, and they believe in that formula, you can’t have a war. But the British are starting to find out, you know, as this dead zone period from the end of the archduke’s assassination to the ultimatum by Serbia, what the British are starting to find out is that Angell is at least partially wrong. He may be right that you will destroy a whole system that’s making everybody rich, but he seems to be wrong in thinking that the powers that be will avoid a war because of that.

Margaret MacMillan, from the same talk I linked above:

Question from the audience: You do draw a number of parallels between our current political situation and the situation at the turn of the 20th century. Do you have any ideas about perhaps the seeds of things that you see now that might cause people to do something equally as stupid as what happened then?

Margaret MacMillan: Okay, our capacity to do stupid things is huge, I think. You know, I think that’s a given. What worries me always is when you have disputes which engage nationalist feelings, because I think these can push governments in ways they may not want to go. Governments sometimes themselves, of course, encourage such things.

I’m thinking of the current tension in the South and East China Seas between China and its neighbors, and how this is becoming a nationalist cause in Japan, for example. I was recently in Japan and I talked to some Japanese international relations experts who were very concerned about the ways in which they thought Prime Minister Abe was using and appealing to Japanese nationalism to mobilize opinion against China, and the Chinese government doing something rather similar with Chinese nationalism. The trouble with those things is they can get out of control far too quickly.

And I think perhaps even more than in 1914, we expect governments to respond quickly. You know, if a government hasn’t responded in two minutes, people start getting impatient. And so the temptation to do something stupid… I mean, you know, should a Chinese – let’s hope not – but should a Chinese and a Japanese naval vessel have a clash, or should there be some incident in the air, the danger then, I think, is that opinion on both sides gets inflamed and it becomes very difficult for governments to back down.

I think the same thing with what’s happening around the borders of Russia, particularly of course in Ukraine. You know, the potential there for things to get out of control… On the plus side, I think we do have stronger and more international institutions. And I think we also have a very sensible recognition that any major war now would be so devastating that its consequences would probably be much worse than either the First or the Second World War.

But I’m not always confident about human nature. As someone once said – not me – we have a couple of design flaws there.

Christopher Clark again from the same talk I linked above:

And finally, there is the fact that we are no longer in the era of bipolar stability that we used to call the Cold War, and we are still scratching our heads and trying to work out what that means. I went to an interesting paper in Belgrade by George Friedman, the American political scientist, and he commented that we had the Cold War, then we had the post-Cold War – that was the period from 1989 till about 2007, and that was an era of total unipolarity.

There was only one great power left and everybody was watching Washington, and there was talk of full spectrum dominance and so on. That era has now passed and we are now in what he calls the post-post-Cold War. It gets more and more unwieldy – I was hoping he would come up with something a bit more handy, but no, the post-post-Cold War.

And this is an era when it is no longer unipolar. We are back in a period which is authentically multipolar, with numerous centers of power, a world populated not just by, on the one hand, a weary Titan – that was the term sometimes used about Britain before 1914, and some might like today to describe Washington as a weary Titan.

It is not in decline in any kind of metrically provable sense, but it is certainly wearying in some respects, subjectively at least, of its world role, or parts of it are. On the one hand, we have that, and on the other hand, we have rising powers, one in particular which is rattling at the cage of the geopolitical system in ways which unsettle many chancelleries, and I am not, of course, referring to Russia.

So, these shifts in perspective, which, I mean, this is of course a world which in many ways resembles 1914 more and more, rather than less and less, so we have a paradoxical situation where, even as 1914 recedes further away into the past, it actually in some ways feels more relevant.

I came across these two quotes as I was writing this post:

“History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.” – Konrad Adenauer, first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (1876-1967)

History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, French diplomat, political scientist, and historian (1805-1859)

In a previous post, I wrote about optimists vs. pessimists. When you learn about the history of WWI, and how leaders bumbled their way into a horrendous war, it’s a bit hard to be optimistic about humanity. Optimists may point out that we’ve managed to survive two world wars. However, what’s different this time is that the killing power of modern weapons has never been higher.

The history of the First World War is fascinating. I’ve just started learning about it, and I’ll continue to write as I learn more. Dan Carlin’s series is brilliant, and it’s one of the best places to start if you are interested. I cannot recommend it enough.

Between hope and despair

Are you a pessimistic optimist or a cheerful pessimist?

Things have never been better.

Everything sucks!

Stories like these have become frequent in the media. I first started noticing them around 2017–18 when I came across Steven Pinker, and heard one of his podcasts. It must have been because 2018 is the year Enlightenment Now was published. In the book, Pinker trots out chart after chart, to passionately argue that life has never been better for the vast majority of the world across metrics like health, wealth, education, violence, and quality of life.

But when you talk to people around you and listen to commentators online, it feels like things have never been worse. This feeling of deep-rooted malaise and disenchantment is widespread around the world, especially in advanced economies.

Vibes aren’t local anymore. Thanks to the internet, they travel. You can feel the sense of stuckness in developing countries like India too. Despite all the progress humanity has made, a lot of people think everything sucks. No amount of data, or fancy charts seems to make a difference.

I’ve been reading articles on optimism vs. pessimism with some interest since 2018. A couple of years ago, it also dawned on me that thinking about optimism and pessimism is essential because I work in finance, an industry that enables trillions of bets on both of these world views.

I assumed and even fancied myself as a pessimist to some extent, but then I realized that the way I was investing was as an optimist. I hadn’t thought about this hard enough. It was just lazy thinking and self-deception.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking more about the duel between optimism and pessimism over the last few years, and I was planning to write something about it. As an aside, Duel of Fates by John Williams is one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.

This is by no means a complete post; it’s more of a messy pre-first draft or a forever draft. I’ve been trying to read various perspectives on this, so I’ll keep updating the post at regular intervals. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been seeing hopeful charts of human progress on some key dimensions that are key to forestalling the end of the world, and that was another trigger for writing this post.

Ok, back to the question at hand.

Is the wordl getting better, or is it going to shit?

Before that, it’s helpful to understand the origins of the terms optimism and pessimism:

This longstanding philosophical debate is where we get the terms ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’, which are so much used, and perhaps overused, in our modern culture. ‘Optimism’ was the phrase coined by the Jesuits for philosophers such as Leibniz, with his notion that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (for surely, if God could have created a better one, he would have done so). ‘Pessimism’ followed not long afterwards to denote philosophers such as Voltaire, whose novel Candide (1759) ridiculed Leibnizian optimism by contrasting it with the many evils in the world. ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds,’ Voltaire’s hero asks, ‘what on earth are the others like?’ — Look on the dark side (archive)

It’s all sunshine and roses

In the 1600s, the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote:

Life is nasty, brutish, and short.

Optimists argue that this was the case for much of humanity. Humans lived miserable lives filled with poverty, hunger, ignorance, scarcity, and outright brutality. Then the scientific revolution, which started around the 1500s, picked up pace and led to the industrial revolution in the 1700s. We learned how to tame nature, and so began a great era of progress across health, food security, literacy, politics, and much more.

The optimists point out that humanity has never been better off based on most measures like life expectancypovertyhungerchild laborchild mortalityliteracyinequalityslaveryhuman rightssame-sex marriagewomen’s rights, the spread of democracyscientific progresstechnological advancesozone-depleting emissions, the growth of renewable energyviolenceaccess to clean cooking fuelaccess to knowledge, and more.

Here’s how economic historian Joel Mokyr, who’s written several books on growth and progress, puts it:

Much of the world, I should say not all, is vastly richer today than at any point in history. Even the people who are at the bottom of the ladder today, people who are relatively poor in Western Europe or even the United States, are enjoying a living standard that is much higher in almost every dimension than the popes and emperors of the past. We are living longer, we have lower infant mortality, we are taller, stronger, healthier, we eat better, we enjoy ourselves more, and we have more access to information. All of this has emerged in the last 200 or 250 years as the result of developments that began with the Industrial Revolution.

So what I tell my students is that I compare modern economic history with the history of evolution. I tell them that for millions and millions of years, species came and went, and the world remained more or less the same. Then one day, fairly recently, Homo sapiens came around and changed the rules of the game. From then on, everything was different.

The other analogy, somewhat more prosaic, is to compare economic history to a hockey stick. It has a very long shaft with very little growth, and then all of a sudden it bends upwards very sharply and stays at that trajectory. As far as growth is concerned, we haven’t seen anything yet.

Here’s the economist, Deirdre McCloskey (archive), who’s written several classics on how the world became prosperous:

Yet all the worries from Malthus to Piketty, from 1798 to the present, share an underlying pessimism, whether from imperfection in the capital market or from the behavioral inadequacies of the individual consumer or from the Laws of Motion of a Capitalist Economy —this in the face of the largest enrichment per person that humans have ever witnessed.

During such a pretty good history 1800 to the present, the economic pessimists on the left have nonetheless been subject to nightmares of terrible, terrible faults. Admittedly, such pessimism sells. For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell, and become huffy and scornful when some idiotic optimist intrudes on their pleasure.

Yet pessimism has consistently been a poor guide to the modern economic world. We are gigantically richer in body and spirit than we were two centuries ago. In the next half century—if we do not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by implementing leftwing schemes of planning and redistribution or rightwing schemes of imperialism and warfare, as we did on all counts 1914-1989, following the advice of the the clerisy that markets and democracy are terribly faulted—we can expect the entire world to match Sweden or France.

Matt Ridley is an ardent defender of progress and innovation, and he has written several best-selling books, including The Rational Optimist. He, along with Johan Norberg and David Runciman, participated in an Intelligence Squared debate on optimism vs. pessimism.

Optimism isn’t based on personality or character. I can be as gloomy as anyone, particularly at 3 in the morning, but it’s based on the data. Because when I was growing up, I believed the pessimists and I never heard the optimists. When I was a student, the population explosion was unstoppable, famine was inevitable, pesticides were going to shorten our lives, acid rain was going to destroy forests in the north, rain forests were going to disappear, the desert was advancing, the ozone layer was collapsing, nuclear weapons were going to get us, my sperm count was falling, and at the end of the year 1999, the computers couldn’t cope with a number, civilization was going to collapse.

And I just began to notice after a while that these things weren’t happening, and that extraordinary improvements in, for example, health were happening all around the world. Child mortality down by 2/3 in my lifetime – that’s the biggest measure of misery I can think of. AIDS, everybody thought it was going to go on getting worse and worse, instead of which it’s getting better at the moment. Malaria mortality down by 60% in this century alone, in the last 15 years. These are unbelievable achievements, and they’re continuing.

Here’s Swedish historian Johan Norberg, another defender of classical liberal values:

If you go back to the awful 20th century politically, almost anything that could go wrong did go wrong in the world. We had the Great Depression, we had two world wars, we had Nazism, fascism, communism, the Iron Curtain. It was awful. And yet, if you look at human living standards at the end of those awful 100 years, we have never seen as much progress as we did during those years.

We increased life expectancy from 30 years to almost 70 years. Chronic undernourishment declined from 50% to almost 10% around the world. Extreme poverty declined from around 80% around the world to… soon it’s down to 10%. So it seems, and that’s no comfort for all those who were killed in those wars, all everybody who were oppressed and all those things, but it seems to say that there’s something in human nature that we just continue, whatever happens.

Optimists say that pessimists don’t have an appreciation for history and are stupid for not recognizing how far we’ve come. They contend that by focusing only on the negatives, they are discouraging and demoralizing hopeful people who are working to make things better. Optimists also point to history and say that when push comes to shove, we always rally together to solve problems.

They argue that optimism is necessary for solving problems. Here’s Zachary Karabell, author and founder of The Progress Network:

I believe that a societal belief in its collective capacity to solve problems is, in and of itself, a needed ingredient in effectively solving those problems. So, fatalistic societies, pessimistic societies, societies that essentially feel it’s all going to get worse, as well as individuals – I would posit, I can’t prove this, we don’t get to replay the tape – have a much harder time galvanizing collective energies to solve needed issues, in part because, look, if you really believe that the world is on the verge of kind of pseudo-planetary extinction because of climate change, as well as political extinction because of the political climate, and that that’s a likely outcome, and that the future is going to be worse, that does rationally, on an individual and national level, lead to a kind of a “beggar thy neighbor” tendency.

Welcome to hell on earth!

The pessimists argue that the optimists are Pollyannas who are selectively picking measures that suit their narratives and ignoring reality. They say that across most measures, the optimists trot out zoomed-out charts, and things have been steadily getting worse if you zoom in.

Some realists, like Daniel Schmachtenberger, also argue that when you consider the cost of this so-called “progress”—from the genocide of numerous indigenous tribes like Native Americans to slavery, colonization, and the wholesale extinction of species due to human activity—is picking a few charts that show lines going up compared to a Hobbesian world really progress?

They point out that the brief moment of peace we had after the end of the Cold War, thanks to the unipolar world dominated by the United States, was a mirage, and the rules-based international liberal order is all but dead (archive).

The point is that things that are degrading, like climate changeunprecedented extinction of speciesloss of biodiversitywater scarcityantibiotic resistanceair pollutionplastic pollution, rising povertyrising indebtedness in poor countriesinequalitydeclining life expectancy in rich countries, the rise of autocraciesrising natural disasters, a rising number of wars and conflicts, the threat of AI-driven automation, rising digital harms, the opioid crisis, the migration crisis, and more.

In October 2023, famed venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz published an unapologetic techno-optimist manifesto (archive), in which he unleashed an uncontrolled ejaculation of unrestrained technological progress. In the post, he also listed out the enemies of progress:

We have enemies.

Our enemies are not bad people – but rather bad ideas.

Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades – against technology and against life – under varying names like “existential risk”, “sustainability”, “ESG”, “Sustainable Development Goals”, “social responsibility”, “stakeholder capitalism”, “Precautionary Principle”, “trust and safety”, “tech ethics”, “risk management”, “de-growth”, “the limits of growth”.

In response, entrepreneur Jag Bhalla and editor-in-chief of the Current Affairs magazine Nathan J. Robinson published a fiery riposte (archive):

Many economists and market optimists like Andreessen now sanction a similar “scientific cruelty.” Like Pangloss, today’s pro-market pundits in effect preach that present material suffering is just part of the grand plan on the road to a bright future. It’s a seductive message to the contemporary equivalents of Voltaire’s smug upbeat aristocrats.

Like Leibniz, today’s Optimists urge the continuation of staggeringly unjust but self-serving systems. Their equivalent of a “best-of-all-possible outcomes” is  the “rational” resource allocations of the great Invisible Hand. The economy is seen as a mathematical optimization scheme, which operates with qualities tantamount to omniscience and quasi-omnipotence. Indeed, that’s precisely how Andreessen speaks of it, repeating the idea that no human has sufficient information to question the Invisible Hand judgements. 

But this notion of Market Providence is, of course, riddled with deep anti-poor biases. To the market gods, your ability to avoid material suffering, never mind aspire to happiness, should be granted strictly in accordance with your demonstrated market virtues, expressed solely in cold hard cash. That’s the core doctrine of trickle-down market theology. But as the Federal Reserve’s own Jeremy Rudd wrote: “the primary role of mainstream economics … is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.” 

Pessimists argue that an overemphasis on positives can lead to complacency and a certain blindness to the monumental challenges that humanity is facing. They also argue that a degree of pessimism is necessary to focus on the problems that beset us.

They point out that this complacency in humanity is what led to the “metacrisis” and the “polycrisis.”

If we look at all of the environmental issues, all the exponential tech issues, all of the fragilities of our global supply chains, and the escalation pathways to war at scale where the post-World War II system is breaking down for a bunch of reasons, we can get into… Collectively, we can kind of call that the metacrisis. And the metacrisis is not one particular catastrophic risk, it’s looking at all of them, because to make it through, you have to prevent all of them. To fail, you only have to have one of them happen.

So we really have to take that holistically, and then to think deeper about it is to say, “Man, is this really like a thousand different issues that are all separate, that we have to think about individually? Or do they all have certain underlying patterns in common, where if we think about those patterns, address those, it would address everything else? Is there some way in which these are all symptoms of underlying issues?”

And obviously, your audience will be very sympathetic to the idea that coordination failures are underneath all of these. Part of why we have the environmental issues is because it’s very hard to have any country decide to tax carbon if any other country doesn’t, because it’s going to hurt their economy and hurt them geopolitically. And to make an international agreement where everyone takes international enforcement, that is really hard to do. That’s a coordination failure. It’s like a giant prisoner’s dilemma, a multi-polar prisoner’s dilemma, a multi-agent prisoner’s dilemma, which is all a multi-polar trap. — Daniel Schmachtenberger

Here’s how Adam Tooze, who’s done more to popularize the term “polycrisis” than anyone else, defines it:

A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality.

So, who’s right?

As obvious as it may seem, both optimists and pessimists are right. I liked social philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger’s framing:

Totally, yeah. Okay, I didn’t answer your initial question and started to go off in another direction around the techno-optimist or techno-pessimist perspective. Nobody wants to go back to a pre-technology time where Novocaine didn’t exist, and you still needed dental work, right? There are lots of things about technology that we like, but all technology also corresponds with externalities—harms across environmental supply chains, social dynamics, or whatever it is.

So, is the world getting better from technology, like Pinker and Rosling and others would say, or is it getting worse, as many environmentalists and organizations like Stanford Humane Technology would say? It’s getting better and worse at the same time on different metrics. It’s getting better on the metrics that we’re measuring and optimizing for, particularly those associated with capital, and it’s getting worse on all the other metrics.

Even the most unabashed optimists admit that some things are bad, even though they do so in a hand-wavy manner. If you were to press even the more hard-core cynics, they’d agree that some things are indeed good.

So why do these debates play out?

It’s partly due to the lack of nuance and talking past each other. Also, the fact that both optimism and pessimism are pejoratives in a lot of cases doesn’t help. People who think the future can be better are called idiots because they are supposedly too stupid to see all the ills of the world. On the other hand, the people who think everything sucks are idiots because they don’t have the ability to appreciate all that’s good.

A lot of these debates involve people talking past each other rather than to each other. I’ve realized that optimism and pessimism exist on a spectrum. It’s perfectly possible for an optimist to be hopeful about a better tomorrow and acknowledge all the ills of the world, just like it is possible for a pessimist not to give in to fatalism despite the unending horrors of the world.

There’s also the fact that we are hard-wired to think in binary terms, while very little in life is black and white. It’s just an endless spectrum of grayness. But grappling with this takes a lot of effort, which is not worth it for most people when default templates for thinking are easily available on demand. There’s also an element of status because ideological posturing is one of the easiest ways to gain it.

Who actually examines the science in detail, looks at the methodology, the models, the sources of funding, and the biases to make sense of it themselves? Instead, people often just defer to the authority that is most associated with their in-group. — Daniel Schmachtenberger

So do things suck?

This is a hard one, but here’s how I think about it.

Life is hard

The problem with talking in terms of aggregates and large numbers is that we lose sight of the fact that we are talking about human beings. All the upward-sloping charts of human progress won’t do any good to a person who’s hungry, homeless, or unemployed. It reminds me of a quote that was misattributed to Josef Stalin:

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

For the vast majority of people, even in advanced countries, things really suck. For all the paeans to progress, many people have been left behind and are suffering. The poorest countries are suffering the ravages (archive) of climate change due to the actions of the richest countries.

Talk to a former factory worker in Missouri who lost his job due to the China shock or an unemployed youth in Uttar Pradesh; all the charts of the benefits of globalization (archive) or increasing life expectancy in the world won’t do them any good.

The vast majority of people on the planet today belong to a class known as the “precariat,” characterized by precarious working conditions. They couldn’t care less about the virtues of free trade, globalization, and enlightenment values. Progress has left people behind, and they are angry.

Progress is also not a neutral force. It can be the result of deliberate political and distributional choices that lead to winners and losers. There’s only so much hopium that the losers are willing to take before they revolt.

As the pessimists rightly point out, the world is backsliding on several key indicators that have an immediate impact on the quality of life, like poverty, safety, food security, employment, and perhaps most importantly, planetary catastrophe. When your employment situation is precarious and the next meal isn’t assured, optimism is a little difficult.

Generation doomed

Looking more broadly, entire generations have a reason not to be cheerful. Pessimism may not be the answer, but when the fog of gloom is thick, it’s not easy to see the light. Author Mara van der Lugt captured the feeling of hopelessness of entire generations evocatively in her brilliant article:

It is all too easy to miss the fact that this generation – the first to grow up in a world where a climate emergency is not just on the horizon, but a stark reality – is haunted by a real sense of losing the future, as all the things they have been told give life meaning are rendered either pointless or problematic. Things like: studyget a good jobsettle down – but what jobs are still certain? Where will it be safe to settle down?

As Greta Thunberg said in Parliament Square in London in 2018: ‘And why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more, when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?’ Things like: start a family – but if there is no future for one’s children, is it still OK to procreate? Even more trivial things, like developing oneself by travelling, are no longer straightforward: for how important is self-development when weighed against the carbon cost of modern travel?

Local optimism, global pessimism

While it might not seem so, we’re wildly optimistic creatures (archive), and research shows that we consistently overestimate positive things and underestimate negative things. But the peculiar thing is that even though we tend to be wildly optimistic about our personal lives, we can be pessimistic about the world.

You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents’ day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family. — Tali Sharot (archive)

Several surveys around the world have found this pattern of individual optimism and collective pessimism.

Negativity sticks

There’s an asymmetry in how we process negative and positive information. We tend to overweight negative information compared to positive information. This makes sense when you consider it through an evolutionary lens. Negative events are more likely to kill us than positive events, so we pay more attention to negative things.

The media accentuates this behavior in us with a steady supply of negative news. If it bleeds, it leads. It has long been a reliable model for news companies to attract eyeballs. This constant drumbeat of negativity distorts our view (archive) of the world.

I love this chart

“I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.” ―Mark Twain

Unmoored

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year is that there seems to be a widespread feeling of a lack of meaning and disconnection among people. I don’t know why. People seem increasingly adrift, which could be a side effect of modernity, digital technologies, consumerism, a lack of spirituality, a disconnection from nature, or a culture that overemphasizes hyper-rationality and individualism. They seem like kites with their strings cut off.

Self-alienation can turn into nihilism and apathy, which are corrosive. If people start thinking, “Nothing matters, so why bother?” then that’s a societal problem.

Yearning for the past

As I was writing this post, I came across this stunning image on Twitter. It’s from a Washington Post article that summarizes results from a YouGov survey asking Americans when times were worst.

Across most measures, Americans feel that the current time is the worst of all times. That isn’t surprising because several surveys (archive) have found the same (archive). Across the world, people think that the past is better than the present, even though, by most measures, life in the present is better.

Why?

In the 1600s, a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer noticed a curious affliction among Swiss soldiers, students, and household servants. They all had a profound and debilitating yearning for their homeland.

He associated physical symptoms like weeping, melancholia, insomnia, and anxiety with this affliction. In 1688, he coined the term “nostalgia (archive),” a combination of the Greek word “nostos,” meaning returning to one’s native land, and “algos,” meaning pain or suffering. The definition of nostalgia evolved with time and medical advancements.

Decades of research show that nostalgia plays an important role in grounding our existence. As time passes, we tend to edit out negative memories and retain positive ones. We reinforce these positive memories through recollection. These positive memories serve as a point of reference as we navigate the uncertain present. Since we are hardwired to hate uncertainty, nostalgic recollections give us a sense of certainty and stability.

The growth-promoting influence of nostalgia might be most critical in the blackest periods of our lives. In the cesspool of Auschwitz, the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl continually called up memories of his wife to remind himself, despite his present hell, of the persistence of fulfilling human relationships. It was these detours into happier times, and the positive emotions that went with them, that steeled Frankl through deprivation, slave labour and typhus epidemics.

The existential triumph that Frankl recounts in his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) – his ability to live meaningfully, even thrive, under the worst possible conditions – was tethered to his skill at invoking joyful episodes from his past:

In a position of utter desolation, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way … in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment.

— The bittersweet madeleine (archive)

In prosperous Western countries, nostalgia for the past may be the result of mismatches between reference points. If kids hear parents talk about how good their childhood was, they compare it to the dismal state of the present and yearn for a golden past that never existed.

Another reason is that we like to feel safe. So if your life is tumultuous, you reach back to your edited memories of a time when everything was alright.

Now, it goes without saying that the current generation has had it rough. They’ve grown up in a time with rolling economic shocks, heightened effects of climate change, and a media environment that overemphasizes the negatives. When you live in such a milieu, it’s not unreasonable to yearn for a safe past. Moreover, you don’t need real memories of a safe past; your brain can construct an imaginary past (archive by piecing together disparate memories and events.

Another reason for nostalgia is that our home plays an important role in grounding our lives. Home is the safe space from which you venture out to brave the hostile world, as well as the place to which you return when you feel defeated. It’s our sanctuary. If your home is threatened, you lose your footing and feel unmoored in life. It’s one of the worst things that could happen to a person.

While the wave of nostalgia in the developed world may seem strange given that people there enjoy relatively more prosperous lives than those in the developing world, in developing, low-income, and poor countries, nostalgia is justified. Poor and developing countries have contributed the least to climate change but are suffering the most (archive).

Despite all the progress, more people are losing (archive) their homes than ever before, and many more are at risk.

UNHCR
Statista

There’s even a new word called “solastalgia” to describe the feeling of losing one’s home due to climate change:

Solastalgia (/ˌsɒləˈstældʒə/) is a neologism, formed by the combination of the Latin words sōlācium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain, suffering, grief), that describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change.

Blessed are those in the advanced world, for hell is not there:

The neologism also offered a useful means of describing and studying how the impacts of climate change reach beyond tangible, physical, and economic damages. A team of social scientists identified feelings of solastalgia among people from rural northern Ghana, a region devastated by climate change–related drought and crop failure. A collaboration of environmental scientists and public-health researchers observed solastalgia in communities affected by hurricanes and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Los Angeles physician named David Eisenman stumbled across the idea of solastalgia when interviewing survivors of the 2011 Wallow Fire, the largest wildfire on record in Arizona. Over and over, he heard them express “the sense that they were grieving [for the landscape] like for a loved one.” He and his team found that the more uneasy they felt about the landscape itself, the more at risk they were for other kinds of psychological distress. — The Era of Climate Change Has Created a New Emotion (archive)

Thanks to the pessimists

I’m sure you would’ve seen quotes like these:

“Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.” ―Thomas Friedman

“Pessimism just sounds smarter and more plausible than optimism. Tell someone that everything will be great and they’re likely to either shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they’re in danger and you have their undivided attention.” ―Morgan Housel

Optimists tend to be successful and pessimists tend to be right.

Pessimists sound smart. Optimists make money.

Pessimists have a terrible reputation.

Based on a cursory reading of such pithy quotes, it’s easy to think that pessimism is useless. I certainly used to think so. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that pessimists get a bad rep. Of course, it goes without saying that, just like optimism, pessimism exists on a spectrum, and no two people mean the same thing.

So let’s go with the dictionary definition of a pessimist:

a person who tends to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen.

Again, it’s easy to think that a person who sees the worst in everything would not only be insufferable but also useless. After all, what purpose could a person who always sees the worst in everything serve?

Well, it seems plausible to me that the pessimists have contributed to at least some of the successes achieved by optimists. After all, if everyone was cheerful and saw the world with rose-tinted glasses, how would anyone recognize the problems?

I think pessimists serve a valuable social purpose by forcing people to focus on the problems. Without them constantly screaming at people about all the ills in the world, would progress immaculately manifest on its own? I think not.

Now, it goes without saying that pessimism taken too far is annoying and useless. But a reasonable degree of pessimism, to me, feels like fuel that powers optimism.

Professor Mara van der Lugt again:

Hopeful pessimism breaks through the rusted dichotomy of optimism vs pessimism. It is this attitude, this perspective that is exemplified in Thunberg and other figures who by their example give an affirmative answer to the question posed by Paul Kingsnorth: ‘Is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?’

The thing to avoid is not so much pessimism, but hopelessness or fatalism or giving up. Even despair need not be completely avoided, since it too can energise and encourage us to strive for change, but we should avoid the kind of despair that causes us to collapse. These things are not the same as pessimism, which is simply the assumption of a dark view of the present as well as the future and does not imply the loss of courage or insistence to strive for better: on the contrary, often these are the very gifts that pessimism can bestow.

Are there really pessimists and optimists?

In writing this post, shoehorning people into either a pessimist or optimist camp feels reductive and pointless to me. I don’t think there exists a person who’s 100% optimist or pessimist. When you probe people, I’m 100% sure you’ll discover they hold nuanced and complicated beliefs about progress and regress.

In an age where in-group and out-group (archive) dynamics have been supercharged thanks to social media, the optimism vs. pessimism debate feels like an unhelpful derivative of this.

This entire optimism vs. pessimism also feels like semantic acrobatics and mental masturbation to me.

What do I mean by that? This dawned on me when I read this awesome post (archive) by the amazing Corey Doctorow:

It may seem like optimism is the opposite of pessimism, but at their core, optimists and pessimists share this belief in the irrelevance of human action to the future. Optimists think that things will get better no matter what they do, pessimists think things will get worse no matter what they do — but they both agree that what they do doesn’t matter.

An optimist decides not to equip the Titanic with lifeboats because it is unsinkable. A pessimist doesn’t bother to swim when the ship sinks and is lost at sea.

To be hopeful is to tread water because so long as you haven’t gone to the bottom, rescue is still possible. It’s not a sure thing, and you might have to try something else if you can figure out another tactic, but everyone who gave up sank, and everyone who was fished out the sea kept treading water.

Hope is the necessary, but insufficient, precondition for survival.

Now, how many people use the word “hope” when they talk about optimism, and vice versa?

Labels are useful heuristics for understanding and navigating the world. They are useful aids when you have to quickly communicate complex ideas. As helpful as labels can be in some areas, they seem dangerous in debates like this when we are talking about existential issues.

I think though that the reality is, anybody who thinks that human beings are not capable at any given moment, and human societies are not capable at any given moment, of colossally going off the rails in ways that are either foolish or massively destructive, is missing something essential about either human history or human nature.

So I take as an axiom that in any given moment, everything could fall apart in ways that are rapid, breathtakingly destructive, and will be looked back on, assuming there will be people to look back on it, as one of those “Oh my God, how did that happen?” moments. Which is why we’re constantly looking at July of 1914, and we’re constantly trying to find the seeds of destruction in past examples where that happened and transpose them to today and think about, “Okay, is this similar?”

But you know, if you do too much of that, you also miss the fact that history is, in fact, a litany of things that went wrong more than it’s a litany of things that went right. Because things going wrong create drama. You know, Tolstoy said, “There are no novels about a happy family.” Why? Because there’s no story in a happy family. There’s no drama, there’s no tragedy, there’s no change. So, you know, we can overdo that, and we can overdo it in the present.

Hope or despair?

The world neither needs blind optimists nor dour pessimists. The equanimity to appreciate the challenges we face and the ability to hope that we can change things are what the world needs. There has to be balance in everything.

What we need is the Aristotelian golden mean of hope and despair:

Furthermore, every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate (a “golden mean” as it is popularly known) between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency (1106a26–b28). In this respect, Aristotle says, the virtues are no different from technical skills: every skilled worker knows how to avoid excess and deficiency, and is in a condition intermediate between two extremes.

The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle holds that this same topography applies to every ethical virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency.

Here’s something the Amazing British Philosopher Kate Soper said in an interview (archive):

“Well, the most immediate impetus was a deep concern over the degradation of the environment and the emergence of global warming as a key source of the crisis in conjunction with a sense that much of the discourse was overly doom-laden. There was too much emphasis on climate change as a threat to the continuation of a given form of life, and too much attention paid to the destruction of nature – which of course, is ongoing and central to what’s happening – but I felt there was too little being said and written about our own role in this. 

“So, there were two main drivers of my arguments around what becomes what I call “Alternative Hedonism.” One was a sense that people are going to be more persuaded to change their ways if they conceive it as being in their own self-interest to do so. This probably means pointing out some of the gratifications of changing their ways of living, rather than constantly reminding them of the destruction caused by their current modes of consumption.

The other driver was that we needed to pay more attention to ourselves as accountable agents for what was going wrong, to shift the attention away from what was happening in nature, to worry less about our alienation from nature and more about the patterns of consumption creating that alienation. Those are the two main drivers in my more recent work.

As an aside, this article by her is one of my all time favorites. I urge you to read it.

Is there any good news?

One of the reasons I started writing this article is because I came across a few optimistic charts on Twitter. For example, this was a recent chart I saw that shows that 30% of the world’s energy now comes from renewables.

We are more closer to peak emissions than ever.

We find there is a 70% chance that emissions start falling in 2024 if current clean technology growth trends continue and some progress is made to cut non-CO2 emissions. This would make 2023 the year of peak emissions – meeting the IPCC deadline.

It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, but there’s a glimmer of a glimmer of hope.

It’s good that this pace is at least not accelerating, but the plateau implies a world that will continue to get warmer. To halt rising temperatures, humans will have to stop emitting greenhouse gases, zeroing their net output, and even start withdrawing the carbon previously emitted. The world thus needs another drastic downward turn in its emissions trajectory to limit climate change. “I wouldn’t get out any balloons or fireworks over flattening emissions,” Lazarus said. — Vox

Less kids are dying than ever

The emissions of major pollutants seem to have peaked.

China is dumping electric vehicles and solar panels around the world.

Chinese solar module exports

A weak domestic economy, changing consumption patterns, and overcapacity, among other factors, are pushing China to dump its manufacturing surplus wherever it can. While this is leading to trade tensions, it’s speeding up the green transition.

It’s not all good news.

Poor countries are spending more of their revenues on interest payments than ever. That means lower spending on health, education, green energy, and other critical areas.

Weaker currencies also push up public debt. About 40 percent of public debt is external in sub-Saharan Africa and over 60 percent of that debt is in US dollars for most countries. Since the beginning of the pandemic, exchange rate depreciations have contributed to the region’s rise in public debt by about 10 percentage points of GDP on average by end-2022, holding all else equal. Growth and inflation (which reduces the real value of existing debts) helped to contain the public debt increase to about 6 percent of GDP during the same period.— IMF

A region of tears:

If you start with the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2024, the answer, for most of us, is not hard to find. The on-going humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar are huge. Central America and Haiti should garner far more attention. But by far the largest and most underreported region of crises is the belt that stretches from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the North East by way of Burundi, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, into Northern Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and across the Red Sea to Yemen.

At the end of 2023, around 110 million people were thought to be in need of humanitarian assistance across this mega-region. If you include the Democratic Republic of Congo, which adjoins East Africa, the total of people in need comes to 136 million, or 37 percent of all the people in the world in need of humanitarian relief. — Chartbook by Adam Tooze

What do you think?

Sorry, but you are in a cult

The cults edition

Last week, I heard the amazing Derek Thompson on The Gray Area podcast. The title of the episode was “Everything’s a cult now.” In the episode, Derek lays out a speculative (in a good way) yet provocative theory that everything is becoming a bit cult-like.

By “cults,” Derek doesn’t mean religious and doomsday cults like Peoples Temple or Heaven’s Gate but something far more ordinary but problematic nonetheless. Derek published the same episode on his podcast, Plain EnglishHere’s how he defines a cult in the episode’s introduction:

In an age of declining religiosity, capitalism seemed to be filling the God-shaped hole left by the demise of organized religion with companies, services, and products that were amassing a religious-like, or, you could say, cult-like, following.
And by cult, I should probably define it here.

I don’t mean something that’s bad, by the way. The book was going to be agnostic about the concept of cults. I was using the term in a very specific way. A cult, I said, is an organization that offers its adherents a radical rebellion against an illegitimate mainstream culture. 

He further elaborates on this definition in The Gray Area podcast:

I think of a cult as a nascent movement outside the mainstream that often criticizes the mainstream and organizes itself around the idea that the mainstream is bad or broken in some way. So I suppose when I think about a cult. I’m not just thinking about a small movement with a lot of people who believe something fiercely.

I’m also interested, especially in the modern idea of cults being oriented against the mainstream. That is, when they form as a criticism of what the people in that cult understand to be the mainstream. And cults, especially when we talk about them in religion, tend to be extreme, tend to be radical, tend to have really high social cost to belonging to them.

You today, especially in the media and entertainment space, have this really interesting popularity of new influencers or new media makers adapting as their core personality the idea that the mainstream is broken, that news is broken, that mass institutions are broken, that the elite are in some way broken, and elite institutions are broken.

The fragmentation of media that we’re seeing, and the rise of this sort of anti institutional, somewhat paranoid style of understanding reality, I see these things as rising together in a way that I find very interesting.

I loved the episode and spent the week digging a little into cults, so I figured I’d share a few things I learned.

For a term we throw around often, there is no accepted definition of the word “cult.” The word comes from the Latin word “cultus,” which means to take care of something or cultivate. It also meant cultivating favor with the gods. In French, “culte,”  which again comes from the Latin word “cultus,” means worship. People also used the word to describe non-mainstream religions or faiths. However, over time, it acquired a negative connotation.

Cult is a term which, as we value exactness, we can ill do without, seeing how completely religion has lost its original signification. [Fitzedward Hall, “Modern English,” 1873]

Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree. [Hugh Rawson, “Wicked Words,” 1993] — Etymoline

Today, the most common definitions of the term involve these elements:

  1. A central and God-like figure who dominates and commands total obedience from followers.
  2. Indoctrinate and subordinate people through various rituals to change their thought patterns.
  3. Exploit people physically, emotionally, sexually, or financially.
  4. Demanding leaders who require total submission to the cause at the expense of personal lives and social identities.
  5. Instill an “us versus them” mentality in followers. Cult leaders convince their followers that they have all the answers and that they are the only ones who can protect them from the evil people in the world.

But Amanda Montell, the author of Cultishsays that there’s no accepted definition and that most experts don’t use the term anymore. She says cults do include elements such as leaders, us vs. them mentality, supernatural beliefs, coercion, and conditioning, but the definition is hard to pin down. In her experience, the definition has become much “hazier” and “nebulous” over time.

Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them.

Of course, the uncomfortable truth here is that even true church (large, established, tradition-claiming church) and cult aren’t so far apart – at least when it comes to counting up red flags. The presence of a charismatic leader? What was John Calvin? (Heck, what was Jesus Christ?) A tradition of secrecy around specialised texts or practices divulged only to select initiates?

Just look at the practitioners of the Eleusinian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or contemporary mystics in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. Isolated living on a compound? Consider contemporary convents or monasteries. A financial obligation? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list. — What is a cult? (archive)

You are probably in a cult

After reading and listening to cult experts, I believe that cults exist on a spectrum—some benign, some suicidal. In fact, many things in our lives have cultish elements. You don’t need charismatic leaders, isolated compounds, suicide pacts, or sexual orgies to be in a cult. If we look closely at our groups, relationships, politics, beliefs, the companies we work for, and the products and services we use, we may very well be part of some benign cults.

In the world of finance, which I am most familiar with, there are plenty of culty things—chief among them the cult of Warren Buffet. People describe going to the annual shareholder’s meeting in Omaha as a “pilgrimage.” Even the classical value investors resemble a cult. Value investors have an almost dogmatic belief in the superiority of value investing and consider all other investing styles to be inferior. That’s culty.

Then there’s technical analysis. Up until about 5 years ago, before a new generation entered the markets, technical analysis had a small but rabid following, but it’s become less popular now. Grown men have an unwavering belief that by drawing magical lines on a chart, they can predict price movements. Technical analysts have an almost religious belief in its efficacy and sneer at people who don’t get it.

Of late, snake oil salesmen who peddle get-rich schemes in the market have garnered cult followers. Regardless of the centuries of evidence that making money quickly in the markets is hard, fraudsters who peddle these schemes have never been more popular. Thanks to greed, they keep attracting newer suckers even as older ones lose money and grow disillusioned. The most culty aspect is that followers defend snake oil salesmen on social media with the same fervor as religious fundamentalists and terrorists.

Then there’s crypto, the cultiest of all finance cults. The faith of a small group’s belief that fiat currencies will lose their value, traditional financial institutions will collapse, and that purchasing Bitcoin is the only way to safeguard oneself against this eventuality is truly remarkable. And of course, crypto has its own share of messiah-like pied pipers to attract and shepherd true believers. I’m saying all of this without passing any value judgments about whether crypto is good or bad.

Derek Thompson: So, this definition of cults—my definition of cults—has two parts. One, it’s a set of internal rules, some of which might be a little bit extreme or socially costly for the people who follow them. And second, it’s a set of external critiques.

Like, if you really liked the latest Dune movie and you enjoyed reading reviews about it, that’s not a cult, right? There are no rules, there’s nothing exclusionary. You can watch Blade Runner the next day and be just as obsessed with that.

But if you spend $10,000 on esoteric cryptocurrencies, and you speak to fellow travelers in this space with crypto vocabulary that makes outsiders confused, and you do all of this because you subscribe to a theory that the mainstream US financial system is going to collapse, then yeah, I think for better or worse, you are participating in something that follows the contours of what has historically been considered a cult, a costly, literally in this case, costly rebellion against the mainstream. — Plain English

Cults are a continuum—some more culty than others. Some are okay, and some are horrible. Sometimes, even if something feels like a cult, it’s not necessarily bad if people stick with it, as long as there’s no financial or emotional harm. The trick is to be cognizant of it.

Amanda Montell: I was concerned when I set out to write this book that becoming so hyper-aware of how ‘cultish’ manifests in the way that I speak and the way that others speak would turn me into a cynical misanthrope. You know, by contrast, it actually made me appreciate our inherent communalism and dreaminess as a species even more. It made me want to teeter up closer to that very blurry line. I talk about it differently, and we’re talking about it in a way that can seem really paranoid. Nobody’s saying, but genuinely, my message is not necessarily to defect from any group or behavior that could be considered cultish.

It’s more about leaning into critical thinking and always having that skeptical twinkle in your eye that suggests there’s always some amount of make-believe here and our identities are more complex than any one given group, guru, or glossary. So maybe the answer is to become a member of multiple different cults.

From Apple products to yoga, therapy, fitness, and self-help groups, we are all part of one cult or another. Again, “cult” doesn’t always have to be pejorative.

Amanda Montell: I mean, how lonely would life be if we had to completely defect from everything considered a little bit cultish?

We crave cults

We’re social animals, and love, community, friendship, meaning, and purpose are at the heart of what it means to be human. Without all these things, we are a bit like a kite with its string cut off, vulnerable to being caught by anyone and being made whole again.

We also crave meaning; except for those weird French existentialists, most of us can’t accept the fact that life is meaningless and there’s no grand purpose to everything. Cults take advantage of these tendencies. They prey on people who are vulnerable, lost, or facing a crisis. They offer answers to whatever it is that people are seeking.

Further, individuals who are particularly distressed prior to joining—such as those experiencing economic, social, and/or psychological stresses—are particularly more likely to experience a significant sense of relief upon joining a cult. Meanwhile, growth in cult membership helps to reinforce the merit of the group’s ideology and validate the group’s existence. — Cults, Charismatic Groups, and Social Systems: Understanding the Transformation of Terrorist Recruits (archive)

Most people assume that people in cults are brainwashed, but Amanda Montell disagrees:

Amanda Montell: Think about brainwashing not as a process where a cult leader completely wipes someone’s brain clean. Instead, it’s more about coaxing individuals to gradually accept more and more radical versions of ideas they’re already open to. You can’t convince someone to believe something they don’t have any inclination towards at all.

Even if you grow up in a cult and their language is all you know, if you possess an inherent skepticism or a tendency to question, you can resist those beliefs. For instance, I interviewed individuals who were born into cults like the Children of God. Despite being surrounded by euphemisms, loaded language, ‘us vs. them’ labels, and thought-terminating clichés designed to shut down dissent, they always had an inkling that something was wrong. They could feel it in their bones, even without having the language to articulate it. — The Fanatic Language Of Cults w/ Amanda Montell

That cults appeal to whatever is missing in us makes sense. Cults appeal to the things that make us vulnerable, like our emotions, lack of purpose, sense of justice, meaning, and connection.

One time-tested tool cult recruiters use to connect with potential recruits is to lovebomb them. It’s a technique in which the recruiter showers a potential recruit with a great deal of care, affection, and attention in order to gain trust.

They are good at using language that triggers charged responses and makes it seem like they can fill whatever deep hole we have (archive) in all of us.

In and of itself, the urge to quiet internal demons is not a negative trait. I’d argue that, to the contrary, it’s an effective adaptation that allows us to cope with the stressors, big and small, that bombard us on a regular basis.

However, cult leaders meet this need by making promises that are virtually unattainable – and not typically found anywhere else in society. This, according Pedersen, could include “complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health, and eternal life.”

Here’s Steve Hassan, a former member of a cult and now an expert on all things cults:

You’ve heard of MKUltra, the CIA research into mind control. The Russians were doing it too; there was a Cold War run-up. I was MKUltra 3.0. I would have died on command, killed on command, and thank God my family rescued me. So, I’m here to tell you about the dual identity that occurs. There was Steve Hassan of Flushing, Queens, and then there was Steve Hassan, the son of Moon and his wife, the true parents of the universe.

I loved this conversation because Steve shared in great detail how he got recruited into a cult. He also talks about how he was trained to resist external information that he was in a cult and how he rationalized being in a cult.

Steve Hassan: Yes, but it can be an ideological authority. It doesn’t have to be a human being or a living human being. That’s where I disagree with some of my colleagues who think you need to have an actual guru. I don’t think so at all. But these four overlapping factors, which I refer to as the BITE model, the more of these you can tick off behaviorally—like controlling sleep, controlling diet, changing your name, rigid rules, and regulations—the clearer it becomes.

There’s a whole list, and it’s on my website, freedomofmind.com. It’s also in my books—a whole list of behavior control variables, information, thought, and emotional control variables. But where it gets really bad, in my opinion, is where they create a new identity that’s dependent on and obedient to the group.

A new identity that’s dependent and obedient. In other words, it has an external locus of control. Whereas the real person, the adult, thinks for themselves, and their locus of control is internal. Instead of asking, ‘Tell me what God wants for me,’ or ‘You have a direct revelation from God, so therefore I must suppress my conscience, my common sense, and my critical thinking.

Cults use everything from sleep deprivation, isolation, threats, rewards, and repetition to break down our mental barriers, destroy whatever sense of coherent identity we have, and create a new one. They systematically isolate us from anything that can cause a rupture in our new subservient identity, creating a sense of powerlessness and a powerful dependency.

Words are the most powerful tool cult leaders use. Their sweet nothings flow down the cracks we have in our psyche—our fears, hopes, dreams, and insecurities—and fill those cracks. In time, even the stable reality of violence and dominance becomes preferable to the pain of having to leave, face the outside world, and remake oneself. Inertia is a dangerous thing. Insanity + time = normality.

We are all susceptible to cults

If someone asked people to guess the type of person who’s most likely to join a cult, most people would guess someone who’s not that smart or physically or mentally ill. That would have been my guess, too.

Well, that might be true, but what surprised me is that even the smartest and most accomplished people are just as likely to join a cult (archive).

Many people have a hard time believing that bright, talented people—often from good homes and with higher education— could fall under the control of a cult. What they fail to realize is that cults intentionally recruit “valuable” people—they go after those who are intelligent, caring, and motivated. Most cults do not want to be burdened by unintelligent people with serious emotional or physical problems. They want members who will work hard with little or no sleep. Most of the former cult members I have met are exceptionally bright and educated. They have an active imagination and a creative mind. They have a capacity to focus their attention and enter deep states of concentration. Most are idealistic and socially conscious. They want to make the most of themselves—and to make a positive contribution to the world.

Here’s Marion Goldman, who studied the Rajneesh movement:

The devotees belied popular stereotypes of passive, easily manipulated spiritual seekers. Two-thirds of Rajneeshpuram’s residents had four-year college degrees and/or had previously pursued lucrative career paths.

These women and men talked with me about their experiences and life histories. Most men, for example, felt that they had personal relationships with their guru, even when they had never met him. They also emphasized how Rajneesh helped them access their hidden intellectual and emotional strength

It kinda makes sense when you think about it. Cults want smart and idealistic people that can stick around and contribute; why would they choose weaklings?

There’s also a status angle to cults. Here’s Will Storr, whose work I had written in a previous post (archive):

They really believe what they’re saying is true, and I think that was true in cults. You wouldn’t go to that extent. People often say, ‘Oh, well, they get money. They get sex with lots of people.’ Yes, they get those benefits. I’m dubious of this idea that most cult leaders are crooks in the sense that they deliberately come up with this mad scheme in order to entrap people.

To answer your question about what kinds of people, the argument they’re making in this status game is that they are the kind of people who have failed at the games of ordinary life. So, in the words of psychologist Robert Hogan, humans want to get along and get ahead; we are tribal animals. That’s what we want to do. We want to join tribes and thrive in them. We want connection and status.

And that’s what we’re trying to do when we play the games of life, whether it’s religion, our careers, a hobby, or when we’re on social media as part of some group swapping studies. We want to connect with other people and gain status in their eyes. The kinds of individuals who are vulnerable to joining cults are the ones who have failed repeatedly at the games of ordinary life. Cults offer a very specific set of rules, precise.

In Heaven’s Gate, for example, they had huge rule books detailing exactly what you had to do—how you took scrambled eggs, exactly what time you took your vitamins, how much toothpaste you could use on your toothbrush, how deep your bath was, and even where you could fart. If you follow this set of rules precisely, we will reward you with connection and also status.

That’s the other thing cults offer—huge amounts of connection. As you follow the rules, you become part of a loyal family for life. That’s the promise, anyway. And cults offer incredible status. If you join a cult, it’s like a really tight religion. For example, if you joined the Heaven’s Gate cult, they promised you were going to enter what they called the ‘evolutionary level above human.’ You would literally be swept off in a UFO to somewhere better, like a version of heaven. So, a cult is just a very tight human group.

Why do cults spring up?

One reason is uncertainty, tumult, or some other form of upheaval. Whenever there’s widespread uncertainty, discontent, malaise, or a feeling that things aren’t working, people are hardwired to seek certainty and meaning. Cults thrive in such times because they offer a false sense of certainty and security, promising all the answers.

As I’ve been writing this newsletter, I keep having the thought that people seem increasingly unmoored. It’s an idea I wish to explore in greater detail in future posts, but in short, people seem lost with no meaning or purpose in life. One factor that explains this is the decline of religion in large parts of the world.

Religion has grounded human existence since time immemorial, but it no longer does. People are desperately looking for something to replace religion, but there’s nothing. Smartphones have replaced the church, and a confessional is just an arms length away. This is one explanation for why weird cults, fringe beliefs, conspiracy theories, and other small groups are flourishing.

I loved Amanda’s take on this:

Jordan Harbinger: Do you think people, especially young people now, are looking more for meaning, I guess maybe spirituality, but also just meaning and not getting it through regular faith? Because you see people leave churches and things like that, but instead, maybe they like go to SoulCycle one day and they’re like, “Whoa, filling a need that I have that I didn’t maybe even know I had.”

Amanda Montell: Totally. Well, I think that meaning, purpose, ritual community, these are profoundly human drives that have existed since the earliest hominids. Like even early humans would gather with their tribes in circles and engage in group song and group dance, even though there was no adaptive or survival benefit, it just felt good. It felt profoundly human.

And I think right now is an interestingly cultish time, because our sources of meaning and connection and community are changing. So increasingly young people, in particular, are losing trust in these traditional sites of spirituality, like our churches and our synagogues that we maybe grow up in.

We’re also losing trust in larger institutions like the government, the healthcare system, but we’re still craving those things and want to fill those voids. And so we look to alternative groups.

Scholars at the Harvard Divinity School, for example, have done studies finding groups like SoulCycle and CrossFit are some of the sites that are filling this truly religious craving or spiritual craving that we continue to have. These are sort of like secular forms of religion. That sounds like an oxymoron, but I think it really can exist.

Wellness spaces, so many different spaces are serving this spiritual and community role in people’s lives and not all of them are destructive, but some of them are. And it’s really like the wild west in terms of cultish is particularly with social media.

Many other people have made a similar observation that times of uncertainty give rise to cults:

New religious movements have arisen to help humans navigate turbulent times throughout history. In Europe, many emerged during the turmoil of the Renaissance and as a backlash against institutional religions. In India, they developed out of the social turbulence caused by the transition to agriculture and later, as a response to British colonialism.

New religious movement is a word scholars use instead of cult.

Robert Wilson writes, “According to relative deprivation theory, apocalyptic religious groups are made up of people who are on the periphery of society. They lack political, religious, and social power, and have little social status. Furthermore, they know that they are on the periphery.”2 This definition certainly applies, at varying times, to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Protestants, cults, and essentially every group that has developed an apocalyptic worldview at some point. — Apocalypse Across Contexts: Reactions to Sudden, Unwanted, and Comprehensive Change (archive)

Here’s Tara Isabella Burton, who has written extensively on religion:

The very collapse of wider religious narratives – an established cultural collectivism – seems inevitably to leave space for smaller, more intense, and often more toxic groups to reconfigure those Geertzian symbols as they see fit. Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals and, as we’ve seen, for society at large. Even Christianity itself proliferated most widely as a result of a similar vacuum: the relative decline of state religious observance, and political hegemony, in the Roman Empire.

Today’s cults might be secular, or they might be theistic. But they arise from the same place of need, and from the failure of other, more ‘mainstream’ cultural institutions to fill it. If God did not exist, as Voltaire said, we would have to invent him. The same is true for cults.

Another reason for the rise of cults—both benign and dangerous—is a lack of shared reality. This is Derek Thompson’s thesis. He argues that the internet has shattered our collective sense of reality, and the shards of the reality we once shared have become mini-realities of their own.

You had technologies like the telephone and the Telegraph that allowed newspapers to share information and report on information that truly was national. It allowed information to travel much faster than it had ever traveled before. And so suddenly, in the late 19th century, we had the possibility of a national and even international, somewhat real time shared reality. And that shared reality might have come to its fullest expression maybe in the middle of the 20th century, with the rise of television technology, you had just a handful of channels that were reaching tens of millions of people.

And at the same time, you also had the rise of national newspapers, and maybe the apogee of national newspapers in terms of their ability to monopolize local advertising revenue and become just enormous machines for getting tens of millions of Americans to read about a shared reality.

And so you move from the 19th century with sort of the birth of this possibility of a shared reality, into the 20th century, where you really have the rise of a kind of monoculture, which was never really possible for the vast majority of human history.

And what I’m interested in is the possibility that the Internet has forever shattered that reality, that we are, in a way, going back to the pre 20th century, where culture is actually just a bunch of cults stacked on top of each other, a bunch of mini local realities stacked on top of each other, and that we maybe will never have anything like monoculture ever again.

Because the Internet, in a weird way, thrusts us back into the 19th century, and there’s all sorts of fascinating things that can unspool from the fact that monoculture and shared reality, as we briefly came to understand it, is dead.

In the podcast, Derek also talks about the media landscape. He talks about what it takes for influencers and new media startups to be successful. The easiest way is to keep saying that “the media” is broken, that there’s a grand conspiracy, and that they have the answer.

The result is a growing distrust of traditional media, with more people getting their news from social media, private chat groups, and other individual influencers. These fractured media diets are further leading to small, cult-like groups.

This was my favorite part of the podcast:

I remember in my conversation with various sociologists and economists and anthropologists when I was doing my cult research, is that at one point I was asking them, what would it mean to you for everything to become a little bit more cultish?

And one of them made the really interesting observation that we’ve gotten so damn good at making products with good physical attributes, at making good enough stuff, that the commercial war of the future won’t be about value or quality, it’ll be about identity. Are you the kind of person who buys this product rather than is this a product that does more for you?

This reminds me of a brilliant article by Dror Poleg titled “In Praise of Ponzis.” In the article, he writes that the old era of scarcity, in which producers manufactured something and then paid gatekeepers like TV and newspapers to manufacture demand, is over.

In the new era, algorithms are kingmakers, and brands aren’t in control of their destiny. However, he says thanks to crypto, it’s now possible for anyone to launch a token easily, pump it up, and use it to “bribe” people. Brands can entice people with these tokens to do something. The more people who sign up for this bribery, the more the token circulates and the more its price rises. As the price rises, it attracts a new set of buyers, creating a virtuous cycle of more buyers and liquidity. Welcome to the Ponzi economy!

“Harder” might not be the right word. Let me rephrase: Launching a successful product is riskier than ever and more dependent on random forces than ever. In the past, a producer could rely on their own manufacturing capacity and on relationships with powerful gatekeepers to guarantee a product’s success. It did not always work, but it often worked.

Today, producers can launch products more easily. But so can their competitors. And ultimate success depends on the behavior of large groups of people. These people cannot be coaxed or threatened. But they can be bribed.

Algorithm is the ultimate cult leader

In one of the podcasts, Amanda said something that stuck with me: “Algorithms are the ultimate cult leader.”

In a sense, we can’t even claim to be growing “less religious” when social media’s job is explicitly to generate ideological sects, to pack people’s feeds with suggested content that only exaggerates what they already believe. As each of us posts, curating our individual online identities, the apps capture those personas via metadata and reinforce them through irresistible targeted ads and custom feeds. No “cult leader” takes advantage of our psychological drives quite like The Algorithm, which thrives on sending us down rabbit holes, so we never even come across rhetoric we don’t agree with unless we actively search for it. ― Amanda Montell, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

It’s true. I don’t buy the argument that algorithms are leading people down weird and dangerous rabbit holes anymore. I used to believe in the naive explanation that algorithms are ruining civilization, but the more I read and listened to thoughtful people, the less this one-sided argument made sense. I mean, we are supposedly the most intelligent creatures in the known universe, and we can be tricked by a few lines of code to destroy society?

Sure, algorithms are to blame as well, but that doesn’t mean we’re blameless. We’re not docile vegetables, consuming whatever slop the algorithms feed us. We make choices by pressing buttons, so we must share most of the blame. The Amazing Gurwinder Bhogal explained this really well on the Forbidden Conversationpodcast:

Um, because what I realized when I actually began to monitor the behavior of people on search engines was that they were not actually going for the most credible information. They weren’t seeking the most highly-rated information; instead, they were opting for really low-grade clickbait, gossip, tabloid journalism, and that kind of stuff. This really opened my eyes because they completely ignored all the academic papers, all the peer-reviewed studies, all the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, and they would go for this really low-grade stuff.

I thought to myself, hang on a second, so what does that mean? We could give people the best information in the world, but what’s the point if they’re not even interested in it, you know? That was a big blow to my worldview because I realized that the problem of misinformation and polarization wasn’t caused by tech algorithms, it wasn’t in the search algorithms, it wasn’t the recommendation algorithms. It was actually the fault of the algorithms of the human heart.

It was human beings—their desires, their evolved behaviors—that were the culprit behind it because tech algorithms are just a reflection of human desires. They just do what human beings want them to do, you know. They follow market pressures. The tech giants want to obviously be the market leaders in their field, so they calibrate their algorithms to give people what people want. And what people want is that low-grade information. They don’t want the truth; they want a kind of counterfeit of truth that justifies their own prejudices, their own beliefs.

Take a break and smell the roses

The only way to know if you are getting brainwashed is to take a break from your smartphone. Climbing Mount Everest in shorts might be easier than doing this, but I think we need this. Being constantly plugged into the matrix is not good for our brains.

Here’s Steve Hassan. One of the reasons Steve was able to leave the cult was due to an accident that isolated him from the Unification Church members, also known as Moonies. This break from them, along with some pleading and prodding from his family, helped him regain perspective.

Steve Hassan: I first want to state that deprogramming back in the 70s was forceful—like kidnapping people or luring them to a location and using security guards. One of the big things to help people get out of mind control is cutting off the constant reinforcement and indoctrination. Fast forward to 2021, this is such a big problem because of smartphones and platforms; people are constantly being reinforced.

Back then, for me, I had a cast from my toes to my groin. My other leg was all bandaged, and I was on crutches. I was lured to my sister’s house, and they took my crutches away. I had been indoctrinated to believe that Satan, which was everywhere, might try to attack me and take me away from the Messiah. This would end ten generations of my ancestors, on both my father’s and mother’s sides, who were stuck at low levels in the spirit world. They would be angry at me forever. But the whole fate of the planet was at stake as well. So, I was not cooperative at all. I didn’t have access to a phone; I couldn’t call the Moonies to check in as pre-arranged.

Most of us won’t be in death cults, but we may be in the thrall of some problematic ideas and beliefs. The fact that we have easy access to information that conforms to our priors makes this all the more problematic. Disconnecting once in a while, forces the brain to do what it was built for: to think, and this can help us regain perspective.


Try not to start a cult after reading this!

Tell me if you liked the post by leaving a comment.

This is the way

Living like life itself edition

I couldn’t write for the past two weeks due to various reasons. So, I’m sorry that you’ve become less intelligent without my wisdom.

A couple of months ago, when I was scrolling on the Substack app, I came across this parable by Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher and a foundational figure of Taoism.

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been going down the rabbit hole of philosophy. To me, the best thing about philosophy is that it grabs you by the shoulders like a tender lover and then violently shakes you until some earwax comes loose and your brain restarts. A curse and a blessing of modernity is that many of us lead structured, cocooned, and cosseted lives. There are no lions and tigers looking to turn us into high-protein snacks anymore.

Given our material comforts, we’ve become zombies, going through the motions of life without having to think or question anything. This kind of living leads to a buildup of plaque on our minds and souls. The longer this goes unnoticed, the more calcified the plaque becomes. Every once in a while, we need something subversive that shatters our comfortable delusions. Something that forces us to re-examine our strongest ideas and beliefs.

In reading philosophy books and listening to philosophers, I’ve come to realize that philosophy’s role is to do just this. A lot of what passes for modern philosophy is grotesque and conceited mental masturbation. But beneath all the sticky mental ejaculate, there’s a rich and ancient world of subversive delights that awaits us. This Taoist parable is one such example.

I wanted to share this as soon as I read it, but I wanted to let it marinate in my head a little and try to understand it better. I won’t claim to have understood this fully, but I’ve been rereading it. With each reading, the many hidden meanings in the parable start to become a little less foggy. But what’s clear is that it will force you to question a lot of things. You may also discover something about yourself in the process of reading the parable.

He who rules men lives in confusion;
He who is ruled by men lives in sorrow.
Yao therefore desired
Neither to influence others
Nor to be influenced by them.
The way to get clear of confusion
And free of sorrow
Is to live with Tao
In the land of the great Void.

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

The straight tree is the first to be cut down,
The spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.
If you wish to improve your wisdom
And shame the ignorant,
To cultivate your character
And outshine others;
A light will shine around you
As if you had swallowed the sun and the moon:
You will not avoid calamity.

A wise man has said:
“He who is content with himself
Has done a worthless work.
Achievement is the beginning of failure.
Fame is beginning of disgrace.”

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.”

The parable seems to have been a translation from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton. Another book gets added to my long list of regrets, sorry reading list.

Given the gap since the last post, I have many things to share, but I will refrain. This parable is the only thing I want you to think about. I would also love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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.

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