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Month: March 2024

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.


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.

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 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we doing?

Why are we doing it?

Is there something we could do that’s better?

Why is it better?

That’s moral philosophy and ethics* in a nutshell

There’s no perfect answer:

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

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

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

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

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

A simple philosophy of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your remember the story of Moneyball?

Pete Holmes: I’m obsessed with Moneyball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few things I’ve learned about writing

On the joys of writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing is the easiest way to read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing helps you think.

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

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

Nothing clarifies your thinking like writing.

Writing helps you wander

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

Will Turner : Barbossa, a heading!

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

Elizabeth Swann : Lost?

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

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

Writing is a way of saying thank you

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

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

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

Writing helps you calm down

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

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

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

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

Writing is the world’s oldest social network

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

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

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

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

Writing helps you connect random dots

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

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

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

Writing helps you be true to yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good writing comes first, and all the bullshit comes later

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to please others is a slippery slope

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

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

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

Writing is an antidote to impostor syndrome

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

Beware of writing tools

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

Own your work

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

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

A few more thoughts

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

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

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

Horny for status

Why does status turn us on?

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

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

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

Sahil Kapoor – Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are belonging animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willing actors and unwitting slaves

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

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

Joe Rogan: The dance of the strip club DJ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moar, moar, moar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Status is the lubricant of capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Status addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxury beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It reminds me of something Rebecca Solnit wrote recently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good reads

We Moderns Are Status-Mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Wants to Play the Status Game?

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

Why So Many Elites Feel Like Losers

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

In the Shadow of Silicon Valley

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome for the status you got out of reading my hyper-exclusive newsletter, which only 8 people know about and only 2 people read.

Say thanks by leaving a comment.

Cut my life into pieces; this is my last resort

The unexamined life is not worth living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on to the talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idea 1: The unexamined life is not worth living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved this idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idea 3: We’re as free as we can be

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

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

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

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

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

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

That last line is poetry.

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

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

I loved this story of King Croesus and Solon.

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

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

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

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

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

Existential reads

Suffering, not just happiness, weighs in the utilitarian calculus

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

The semi-satisfied life

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

Simone Weil on How to Make Use of Your Suffering

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

Pair this with:A just and loving gaze

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

This was beautiful.

The Great Betrayal

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

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

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