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Slouching towards Armageddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slouching towards Armageddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia

From episode 1 of Blueprint for Armageddon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National Museum of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fingerprints of the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret MacMillan, from the same talk I linked above:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Clark again from the same talk I linked above:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between hope and despair

Are you a pessimistic optimist or a cheerful pessimist?

Things have never been better.

Everything sucks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, back to the question at hand.

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

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

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

It’s all sunshine and roses

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

Life is nasty, brutish, and short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to hell on earth!

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

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

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

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

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

We have enemies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who’s right?

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

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

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

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

So why do these debates play out?

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

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

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

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

So do things suck?

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

Life is hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generation doomed

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

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

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

Local optimism, global pessimism

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

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

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

Negativity sticks

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

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

I love this chart

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

Unmoored

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

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

Yearning for the past

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

— The bittersweet madeleine (archive)

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNHCR
Statista

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to the pessimists

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

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

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

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

Pessimists sound smart. Optimists make money.

Pessimists have a terrible reputation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Mara van der Lugt again:

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

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

Are there really pessimists and optimists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope or despair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there any good news?

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

We are more closer to peak emissions than ever.

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

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

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

Less kids are dying than ever

The emissions of major pollutants seem to have peaked.

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

Chinese solar module exports

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

It’s not all good news.

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

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

A region of tears:

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

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

What do you think?

Sorry, but you are in a cult

The cults edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are probably in a cult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We crave cults

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all susceptible to cults

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do cults spring up?

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

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

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

I loved Amanda’s take on this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was my favorite part of the podcast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algorithm is the ultimate cult leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a break and smell the roses

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

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

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

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

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


Try not to start a cult after reading this!

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This is the way

Living like life itself edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are dying every day

We’re all going to die edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about this for a second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merriam-Webster

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

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

Memento mori and premeditatio malorum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s fine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who put me here?

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

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

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

Benevolent evil

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

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

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

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

What’s the point of it all?

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

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

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


Go and live a life worth living.

See you next week.

Between the shits and giggles

The Bill Burr edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Own your shit

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

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

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

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

Joe Rogan: Yeah. It’s Hollywood accounting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know what you suck at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting knocked up

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

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

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

Bill Burr: You’d rather not.

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

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

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

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

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

Or I don’t know.

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

Hobbies

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

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

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

Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Burr – Money Advice

Kevin Hart—Stay in your own financial lane!

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

God

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

Bill Burr: It’s designed to fail.

Howie Mandel: Our world?

Bill Burr: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Howie Mandel: What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howie Mandel: So you believe in a fucking cunt?

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

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

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

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

How to fix the world?

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

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

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

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

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

Neal Brennan: Positive.Hitler positive.

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

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

A few recommendations

An old post I had written about Bill Burr

The Comedian’s Comedian

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

Bill Burr and Chazz Palminteri—Part 1 and 2

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

I will leave it at that.

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

Love a little, and laugh a little.

Subscribed


Horny for status

Why does status turn us on?

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


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

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

Sahil Kapoor – Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are belonging animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willing actors and unwitting slaves

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

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

Joe Rogan: The dance of the strip club DJ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moar, moar, moar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Status is the lubricant of capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Status addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxury beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It reminds me of something Rebecca Solnit wrote recently:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Good reads

We Moderns Are Status-Mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Wants to Play the Status Game?

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

Why So Many Elites Feel Like Losers

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

In the Shadow of Silicon Valley

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

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

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

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


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Say thanks by leaving a comment.

Cut my life into pieces; this is my last resort

The unexamined life is not worth living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on to the talk.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idea 1: The unexamined life is not worth living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved this idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idea 3: We’re as free as we can be

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

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

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

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

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

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

That last line is poetry.

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

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

I loved this story of King Croesus and Solon.

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

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

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

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

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


Existential reads

Suffering, not just happiness, weighs in the utilitarian calculus

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

The semi-satisfied life

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

Simone Weil on How to Make Use of Your Suffering

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

Pair this with:A just and loving gaze

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

This was beautiful.

The Great Betrayal

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


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

Your future self is calling you. Can you hear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrendering to your curiosity

In one of his blog posts, Tom wrote:

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

That’s such a beautiful and noble thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, BAM!

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

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

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

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

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

Duel of fates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Productive waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Darwin:

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

Anything to not think about our shitty lives

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

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

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

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

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

Uff.

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

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

Explore more

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

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

His second and third appearances on Infinite Loops

The most interesting man in finance

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

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

Good reads

Zygmunt Bauman: “Social media are a trap”

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

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

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

The dance of the Tao and the ten thousand things

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

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

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

Reflections From the Field: The Non-Conformist Cemetery

Another delightful and evocative essay by Hadden Turner

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

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

Going Home with Wendell Berry

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

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


Thanks for reading Ooh, that’s interesting! You can put your work email in this magic box to get my wisdom in your inbox so that you can procrastinate in the office.


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

Exploiting yourself to death

The commodification of self edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The achievement society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are both masters and slaves

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

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

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

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

Age of narcissism

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissism is the symptom, not the cause:

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

The Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The church in our pockets

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

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

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

Listen to these episodes:

Achievement Society and the rise of narcissism, depression and anxiety

Everything that connects us is slowly disappearing

BURNOUT SOCIETY by Byung-Chul Han


Good reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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