Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality

Doris Kearns Goodwin recently interviewed Barack Obama about his legacy. As with everything Goodwin has written, it’s fascinating. Here’s a story that caught my eye:

Early in my presidency, I went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world. And in the afternoon, after the speech, we took helicopters out to the pyramids. And they had emptied the pyramids for us, and we could just wander around for a couple hours [at] the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the pyramids are one of those things that live up to the hype. They’re elemental in ways that are hard to describe. And you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images.

And I still remember it — because I hadn’t been president that long at that point — thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know [today] are the pyramids.

Sometimes I carry with me that perspective, which tells me that my particular worries on any given day — how I’m doing in the polls or what somebody is saying about me … for good or for ill — isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?

 

4484379865_dc5a739271_zDavid Bolton

Funny, when I visit ancient monuments like the pyramids, I think the exact opposite.

I think, “Gee, all these people spending their whole lives building something so massive.” And now they’re all dead. Along with the person for whom the monument was built.

Dead. Gone. Just like I will be some day. You, too.

Whether you’re a billionaire or a pauper. A president or a janitor. A person or a leaf turning colors and falling to the forest floor. A mountain or a blade of grass. The same fate is coming for all of us.

Dust.

We Know that We Will Die. But What Do We Do with This Information?

For many of this, the answer is to search for roundabout ways to become immortal.

Perhaps it’s not an exaggeration to say that the primary activity of all human beings from the beginning of human history, since we began telling stories to ourselves, has been the desire to seek immortality.

This is the essence of most religions – to act according to a certain moral code and then obtain eternal life.

This is also the main purpose of starting a family. It is the literal evolutionary purpose of our genes, to reproduce and carry on our legacy. To live out our lives and values through our offspring and their offspring after we die. That is, in a sense, immortality.

And of course, all of this desire for immortality is just an attempt to circumvent and escape one of the only facts that we know for certain. That we are all going to die.

We are forever seeking to perpetuate our own denial of death.

Legacy as Denial of Death

When Obama thinks about his legacy – indeed, when we all do – he’s thinking about the part of his life he sees as immortal. He uses that to focus his attention. The stuff that’s immortal is the stuff that matters.

Wealth as Denial of Death

The accumulation of wealth is largely about a desire for financial security, which is about knowing that no matter what happens in the world around you, you’ll be able to get what you need. And of course the primal need that wealth addresses is the idea that in times of disaster or peril, you will be all right. Wealth can buy you food, shelter, guns, or something else that could be the difference between life and death.

Accumulate wealth – it’s your best chance to live forever. Except, it’s really just an obsession with delaying the inevitable. To survive to an age of advanced decrepitude.

Ostentatious Philanthropy as Denial of Death

When a rich donor gives to his or her alma mater, and requests that a building or a or a department or a bench be named after him or her, it is the same phenomenon playing out again: a person seeking immortality through a donation.

The donor knows that his soul will not live on in the bench named after him, but the very idea of a bench at his alma mater bearing his name after he is gone is enough to spur him to give the college lots of money.

When Stephen Schwartzman gives $150 million to Yale to name a cultural center after him, some saw it as an outrageous waste of charitable giving. But he’s just trying to get the biggest bang for his buck in terms of immortality. Yale will presumably last for as long as American society does, and as long as Yale survives, Schwartzman’s name and memory, at its cultural center, will live on with it.

Art and Literature as Denial of Death

The first sentence on the manifesto page of this blog says, “The purpose of this blog is simple: When I’m on my deathbed I want to be able to say, ‘if you want to know what I learned and believed in this life, look up Joyous and Swift. It’s all there.’”

This is just my own vain desire for immortality, just like Schwartzman, Obama, and everyone else.

I want my thoughts, ideas, and words – encapsulated in a series of blog posts, to live forever.

Whenever we pursue goals that seek to “leave one’s mark on the world,” this is another way of expressing a desire for immortality. Whatever we say to ourselves, the ultimate motivation is the same: We want to show we are objects of primary value in the universe. And we want that to be true even after we die.

Once we move past the basic necessities of safety and security, our focus invariably shifts toward achieving an impact on life that extends beyond our immediate life, to seek immortality.

A Question of Time Horizon

To become President, you have to cultivate an image and a reputation throughout your entire life. It would make sense that someone who became president would thus obsess over the long view. Thinking about your legacy in terms of thousands of years, you would act differently than if you only think a day, a week, a year, or even ten years into the future. Thinking on a time scale a thousand years long, building a massive pyramid or a obsessing over your political legacy makes sense.

But if you think about your legacy on a million or a billion-year time scale, it no longer matters.

On a billion-year time scale, it’s not obvious that a presidential cabinet meeting or the construction of a great pyramid matters any more than playing with your dogs in the backyard.

In a billion years, even the greatest and most optimistic human creation will be dust, along with every other artifact of our existence.

The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away

One of my favorite poems is Ozymandias, by Percy Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The point of the poem is simple and profound: Time will lay bare all of our quests for immortality. They will end just as it did for the kings of kings, with a bare plaque and a big pile of sand and decay.

And that’s ok. All we can do is enjoy the movie while it lasts.

Maybe This is Depressing. But I Think It’s Liberating.

It’s so easy to get worked up about small things. How much money we make. Our reputation. The kind of car we drive. Whether we have the stuff we want. Our social status.

We work so hard to get ahead.

But when we think of our quests for immortality, we should think of them with a wink and a smile. Human quests for immortality matter little, as soon as you zoom out on the time horizon.

Now is Forever

I try not to prioritize the opinions of those living a thousand years from now over my own experience of life now. To the extent that anything in this world matters, it matters now.

Thinking with a thousand-year horizon will make you more ambitious: Thinking with an even longer horizon will make you less so.

Thinking with a thousand-year horizon might make you inclined to build a pyramid as a memorial to yourself and your family: Thinking with a billion-year horizon might make you want to sit down by a stream and just listen to the world that surrounds you.

Thinking with a billion-year horizon is another way of just pondering the miracle of our own existence.

Zooming out on the time horizon is a reminder to lighten up, to stop taking myself so seriously. To enjoy the ever-present now and the intense and powerful experience of the immediate, physical world that surrounds us.

The bigger the boondoggle – the bigger the pyramid – the greater the distraction from what is immediate and essential.

Now is forever. The more you focus your energy building for a thousand tomorrows, the more you might be inclined to lose today.

What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism

My mother grew up in Ireland in the 1950s. She was the 12th of 13 children. Every year, at Easter, her parents would buy her a new dress. That would be her dress for the year. And by that, I mean, that’s what my mother would wear every single day.

She had one outfit.

Earlier this year, I resolved to limit myself to only 100 items of clothing. I read the Marie Kondo book about the magic of tidying up and studied the Zen Habits blog about minimalist habits. I was inspired.

To limit myself to only 100 items of clothing, I had to throw out clothes by the truckload.

This made me think of myself, for a brief moment, as a minimalist. As if owning only 100 items of clothing were somehow an act of tremendous restraint.

That’s ridiculous.

Last year, in Nicaragua, I stayed at a small hotel for a week. It was a beautiful place, right on the beach, so close to the ocean that a couple of nights I dreamt I was drowning.

There were four locals who worked at the hotel. For the week we were there, I noticed that each of the staff wore the same clothes every day. They didn’t wear a uniform for their jobs – they wore their own clothes. And every day they wore the same thing.

Most likely, as with my mother growing up, they only had one thing to wear.

The median world household income is less than $10,000 a year. For most of the world’s population, the principal struggle isn’t to limit the number of material possessions.

If you have choices about what you wear, you are lucky. If you have to get rid of many possessions to access your most valuable possessions, you are still a long way from anything that could be accurately described as a minimal lifestyle.

When those of us who make more than $10,000 a year talk about “minimalism,” the only thing we are minimizing is our addiction to needless consumption.

We’re fat people on a diet.

But that’s not the same thing as being skinny.

What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy

No matter how much you regret something in the past, or how much you fear something in the future, none of it matters three seconds after you fall into 40-degree water. When immersed in water that cold, nothing else exists. It wouldn’t matter if your mother died yesterday. Not at that moment.

The freezing water consumes your body, which then consumes your mind, as a thousand razor blades tear through the nerves of every skin cell in your body.

Your body screams, “I’m dying, get me out.”

There is nothing else.

When I was a younger man, I thought that our minds ruled over our bodies. That if I could just control what was happening in the never-ending internal narrative in my head, that I would have it all figured it. But I now understand that my mind, my thoughts – the conscious “I” that is the subject of this sentence – is the just humble subject and servant of my body. Indeed, my consciousness is just a product of my body.

And only recently, I have come to conclude that any moral philosophy – any system of beliefs about how we should live our lives – must address the physical roots of suffering or contentedness. That a disembodied philosophy is a hallow philosophy. Any meaningful discussion of how we should live our lives, must start and end with the profound implications of what it means to be physically alive and present in a physical world.

I spend most of my days doing what you might call “intellectual pursuits.” By this, I just mean reading, writing, and legal work (which is usually reading or writing or talking to people about reading or writing). This is how I spend about three-quarters of my life.

But then there is another part of me that likes run up and down mountains, to kayak down rivers. To get outside and to feel things.

I have run on this trail.

And on these trails.

And I’ve kayaked here.

What could I possibly read or write that would ever compare to the beauty of something like this?

Watching the colors change at sunrise over the rim of the Grand Canyon. Seeing the expanse when you crest timberline on a mountain trail. The joy of watching the sun set with family and friends on the beach during my wedding in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

These all feel like the most important parts of my life.

But they are not intellectual pursuits.

Most philosophers don’t focus on the body much. In fact, it’s only recently that most philosophers have come to accept that the human mind is the human body: nothing more, nothing less. This discovery that our minds are just fleshy matter and electrical impulses, is what Francis Crick calls, “the astonishing hypothesis.”

Until the last 100 years or so, it wasn’t a widely accepted hypothesis. And even now, it isn’t widely accepted among the broader population.

My day will unfold very differently if I start it with a few cups of tea as opposed to a few shots of tequila. My plans should change if I am forced to take a few doses of LSD as opposed to a couple of Adderrall pills. I will focus better if I exercise and meditate in the morning. There are thousands of pharmacological nudges that attempt to correct for our various biochemical imbalances.

But, still, the body rarely finds its way into philosophical conversations. There is of course “the mind-body problem,” a 200-level philosophy course at every major academic institution. But as someone who has both taken and TA’d such a course, I can assure that the focus in such courses usually remains abstract and disembodied. The emphasis is on the minds of bats in caves and brains in vats of nutrients, not on the importance of physical sources of our mental states.

The pull of philosophy – even for those who believe in the “astonishing hypothesis” – has always been to disconnect the mind from the physical body and abstract away sensations of physical experience. To separate our mental world from the most powerful parts of what it means to be human.

I’ve been watching this movie a lot lately. If you’ve never seen it, please check it out.

It might change your life. Or, at least, it might change how you plan your next vacation.

It’s poignant, kooky, and embarrassingly beautiful.

Sadly, the creator of that video, Kyle Dempster, died a few weeks ago climbing in mountains of Pakistan. He was 33.

I’m sure that many of you might be thinking that his death was stupid. That his adventures are stupid. That the risks he took were stupid.

But damn, as short as his life was, it sure did seem amazing.

Perhaps some of you might be thinking that the Road From Karakol has nothing to do with moral philosophy. That freezing water has nothing to do with moral philosophy.

But moral philosophy troubles itself with the question of how to live the best possible life. And if the best parts of life are when you feel alive and engaged in the physical world, how can it not consider the role of our physical lives?

Normally, moral philosophers focus on questions of ethics. What we should do and what we should not do. And, often, the focus is on what you might call boundary questions. When is such-and-such behavior ethical and when is it not? Trolley problems.

Those may be fun exercises. But they are not the moral philosophical problems that are the source of our struggles.

For most of us, the primary moral philosophical problem we face is that there is a massive disconnect between the life we want to live and the life we are actually living. The real trouble with moral philosophy isn’t that we struggle to solve boundary questions in ethics, it’s that our system of beliefs and our behaviors are misaligned.

Something tells me that wasn’t a problem for Kyle Dempster.

I’ve spent most of my life studying philosophy. I first started reading Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Nietzsche, and Kant when I was 15.

The idea that we could read books, think about the best way to live, and then apply those lessons to life, that’s been a central focus of my life ever since. I have found much wisdom in my many years of studying philosophy that has shaped how I live.

But now, after 23 years of studying philosophy, I believe more than ever that abstraction is not the source of a good life.

For most of my life, I thought philosophy of life and a love for mountains were separate endeavors. But as I have grown older, my ability to appreciate life is in many ways contingent upon my ability to get outside and get physical. That understanding life is less meaningful if I am cooped up in an office or a house.

Life is an embodied experienced and without awareness of the body and its needs we are  missing the point of life. Our bodies and brains evolved to manage a series of intense physical tasks. We evolved to run and chase after our dinner. To run, hide, and climb trees to save our lives.

Our existential crises stem from the fact that we spend most of our lives in cubicles and cars and houses, going from one small box to the next, staring at screens, seeking comfort and trying to find fulfillment in intellectual pursuits and shallow entertainment. We are designed and programmed for a life that is wholly unrelated to the life we have created.

I believe that our actions should be based on reason and knowledge to the full extent we have developed it in the modern world. I consider myself a rationalist in the “Less Wrong” sense of the term (though not in the Cartesian sense of the term). But I also appreciate that living well is about maintaining a perpetual awareness of the physical states that lead to living well. That living a good life is a vigorous, visceral thing. And there’s nothing about that approach that’s anti-intellectual.

It’s a philosophy I call vigorous rationalism.

I just took a break from writing this post to do one of my favorite things. It’s free, simple, and easy to copy. Feel free to do it yourself.

I went outside to lie in the grass in my small backyard, with the sun beating down on my face. My two dogs came up next to me, to roll around in the grass and soak in the sun at my side. The simple act of having my whole body in a small patch of grass was totally reinvigorating. It’s a testament for me of how any act, however small, to connect with nature, impacts physical and mental health.

I do this every day it isn’t raining or snowing.

Whenever I feel depressed or down now, I don’t try to reason my way out of the funk. I know that doesn’t work. Instead I look for a physical source of energy – a cold shower, a patch of grass, a hug, or, best of all, a trail and a mountain.

I believe that if we plant seeds to create real, physical, embodied experiences of joy in our lives, the boundary problems take care of themselves. If we breathe and attend to the needs of our embodied selves, our greatest sources of discontent disappear. 

And lest I give the impression that my philosophy here is new or original, I’ll leave you with quote for Thoreau’s Walden.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
― Henry David ThoreauWalden: Or, Life in the Woods

RIP – Kyle Dempster

You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)

You, my friend, are the star of your own movie. The star of the movie is you.

You are the hero of a beautiful story, projected in your mind every minute of your life.

You are special. And you want everyone else to know that you are special.

It’s why a baby screams for attention. It’s why Facebook is one of the richest companies on the planet. It’s why you care about the clothes you wear and the car you drive and the way you look.

It’s the most essential part of who you are.

You know that every story has heroes and villains. They are the reason you watch sports. That’s why you get so worked up about politics. They are the drivers behind every TV show or movie. Whatever you do, it’s about your guys, the heroes, vs. their guys, the villains.

As William James once said, “Mankind’s common instinct for reality… has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism.”

And, if he couldn’t become a hero, why would anyone choose to fight in a war?

In each of our minds, we live out a morality play.

It is a play where we are always center stage. It is a place where what is good and evil and right and wrong evolves according to the changes in our lives and our reactions to those changes.

Whether you are rich or poor, generous or selfish, kind or mean, the story inside of your mind is always looking to explain your position in the world.

However your world unfolds, your morality story molds to adapt to your mind’s feelings about how it unfolded.

Freud called this, “primary narcissism,” which is just another way of saying that self-love is a basic part of who we are.

When you watch a pair of siblings fight for their parents’ attention, it’s because the unyielded need for recognition has not yet been diminished in their minds.

According Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Denial of Death:

“Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: It is not that children are vicious, selfish or domineering. It is that they so openly express a man’s tragic destiny: he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.”

Most of our struggles, from birth to death, can be stripped down to this: persuading others to think of us an object of primary value in the universe. To become the hero of our own story.

Our primary quest is to convince the world, or at least some part of it, that we are, and always have been, the star.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

One of the most successful books of the 20th century was Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Published in 1936, it has sold over 30 million copies.

This book could be re-written in a single sentence: Treat other people as if they were the stars of a movie, and great things will happen to you.

Here are the six ways in which Carnegie tells us to act, so that other people will like us:

Become genuinely interested in other people

Smile

Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.

Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

Five of the six ways to “win friends and influence people” require you to stroke someone else’s ego. The sixth, “smile!” is just another way to let someone know you like him or her.

And my favorite gem from the book, “A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China that kills a million people.”

The book sold 30 million copies, and the simple point of it is this: everyone thinks they are the star of the movie, and they want other people to let them show it. Take advantage by playing a supporting role every time you meet someone new. Do this, and you will not only make lots of friends, but you can convince them to do whatever you want!

Hero Worship 

Sometimes when we star in the movie, we aren’t really the stars. Instead, we find someone else who is the star of the movie and find a way to connect ourselves to them.

Did your local sports team just win the Super Bowl? Well, that’s about you, too.

Did you cheer for Americans during the Olympics? They represent who you are.

That’s why sports fans use the pronoun “we” when talking about their favorite teams. If you are in the stadium or watching on TV and you support the team from the beginning, the team’s glory is your glory. Your hero worship lets you share in the moment.

Piggybacking someone else’s glory is just another way to pretend to be the star of the movie. It’s heroism by proxy. We can play the hero without having to do any of the work.

In the big crowd when we celebrate the championship, at the parade, is there any difference between the fan and the hero? Whichever one we might be, in the orgy of noise and screaming and music, it all blends together.

The Hero Hidden Below

The radio program and podcast This American Life did a feature on a New York City group called Improv Everywhere. This group likes to weave improvisational comedy sketches in the middle of real life situations, with people who have no idea that they are in the middle of a sketch. Some sketches make people laugh, some make people cry.

About ten years ago, Improv Everywhere decided to perform a sketch where they pretended to be superfans for a previously unknown band who were on their first tour in New York, Ghosts of Pasha. Ghosts of Pasha had no idea what was about to happen.

Improv Everywhere recruited dozens of people to learn the band’s songs and then go to the concert, and the only instruction was to act out their imagined love of Ghosts of Pasha in whatever way felt most natural.

When the band played the show, they were shocked to have a crowd full of people who knew and loved their music. It felt like they were stars! They had made it! They were playing a concert in New York City and a bunch of people they had never met knew and loved their music.

And then, a few days later, Ghosts of Pasha discovered that it was an act – that their fans had not been earned organically. They hadn’t just discovered their music and fallen in love with it. Instead of having fallen in love with their music, the fans had been acting out a performance as a part of an Improv Everywhere sketch.

To hear Ghosts of Pasha’s guitarist tell the story, when he learned it was hoax, it reminded him of the deepest wounds from childhood. He had been an insecure kid, and then he immersed himself in music, in playing guitar. For the first time, during that concert, he had thought that the guitar had made him a star. There he was, in New York City – thinking he had proven himself as someone worthy of attention. And then it was yanked away, like Lucy stealing the football from Charlie Brown.

The poor kid was devastated.

But the founder of Improv Everywhere wasn’t sorry. He said he wanted to give the band the night of their lives. There was nothing wrong with that, in his mind.

To me that shows a callous disregard for how humans think and feel.

To make a person feel special, by pretending to love their art, only to later reveal the expression of love was about someone else’s artistic performance that nothing to do with that person. Viewed from that perspective, there are few things you could do to another person that would be more more cruel.

Later, the band came to peace with what had happened. Why? Because they said what had happened that night had felt so right, so real. Even though they were only performing for performers, they had had a great show, and at that moment, it was real. To quote guitarist and keyboardist Milo Finch, “[w]e rocked the place that night and you know it.”

And you know what, I’m sure he’s right. When given the opportunity to become a star, it’s a role that feels more right than anything. .

A New Perspective

Part of me thinks I’ve never written anything more obvious than this. But part of me thinks this is a revelation.

So in the off chance that I’m right, I’ve decided to publish it.

Of course everyone wants to be special! I know that. You know that.

But to treat every person you meet as if they are the star of a movie that you love, therein lies a real challenge. That requires you to bring energy to everyone you meet. To every cashier and person on the subway and every client and middle manager and tax professional.

Each of us is a star and wants to be treated as such, but the world almost never treats any of us that way.

That’s really something. That explains a lot.

What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)

I.

From April 2012 to April 2013, my aggregate gross income was zero.

I read a lot. I ran a lot. I wrote some. Taught myself a little Python and LISP. Played around with a few startup ideas. But I had no overarching or under-arching purpose to what I was doing.

My prior job was working at a high-paying law firm. And since I am frugal and a decent investor, I had some money left over.

The only reason I went to law school was because I tested well and because I was tired of being broke. The only reason I worked at the high-paying law firm was because it was a high-paying law firm.

So there I was, 34 years old, with a decent amount of money and nothing to do.

And do you know what the experience taught me? That I needed some sort of professional focus in my life. And that doing nothing, or doing a bunch of random things without much direction, had started to erode at my sense of purpose. It made me feel as if I were on an island of irrelevance.

And whereas before I had thought that early retirement was the ultimate dream, I soon realized that retirement – at any age – probably wasn’t for me. And the more I thought about and read about retirement, the more I realized that retirement probably isn’t ideal for a majority of professionals today.

II.

The standard practice for most of us is to work hard during our prime years and then retire in our golden years.

And there is some historical rationale to this. In 1790, 90% of the labor force in the United States worked in agriculture. And working on a farm is demanding, hard work. For most, working on a farm as a 70 or 80 year old is impractical or impossible. But now, less than 3% of the labor force works in agriculture. And the total number of jobs today in the United States that require even “moderate physical activity” is less than 20%.

For 80% of the population, there is no physical reason to compress your working years before the age 65.

III.

According to Pew Research, retirees are no more likely to be happy than workers. So, then, why retire? Apart from the global financial industry, currently estimated in the $11 trillion range, which certainly encourages us to think about retirement, there are other reasons.

To name a few:

  • Not working in our golden years sounds nice. No more bosses, no more stress, no more inconvenience of coming into the office every day. Given the choice between work and no work, most people think they’d prefer no work.
  • It seems trivial to spend the last years of our life focusing on anything other than spending time with loved ones and appreciating the best things life has to offer.
  • Many suffer from declining health as we get older. Whether it’s arthritis, incontinence, dementia, or any other ailment traditionally associated with old age, there are plenty of physical reasons why it might be hard to go to into an office, even if the labor done at work isn’t physical.
  • Also, society might not want older workers to keep working. Mandatory retirement is illegal in most circumstances in the United States, but we’ve created a host of social incentives, from 401(k)’s to social security, to encourage most workers to leave the workplace before age 70. Maybe this is for the benefit of retirees; maybe it’s for the benefit of the younger folks.

IV.

In spite of all the incentives to retire, not everyone seems to want to go.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, retirement, and the desire to retire, is actually less common among who can most afford to retire.

According to a recent piece by NBC:

A new survey shows that America’s highest earners don’t plan on retiring until they are at least 70 years old. Lower-income groups—and even those considered “affluent”—plan to retire much younger, according to the study from Spectrem Group, a wealth research firm.

When asked, “At what age do you expect to retire?” nearly one-third of those with annual earnings of $750,000 or more answered “over 70.” Fifteen percent of them say they never plan to retire.

On the other hand, only 6 percent of those making under $100,000 a year plan to retire after 70, and the same percentage say they never plan to retire. Most plan to retire by 65.

The Spectrem survey is backed up by other, previous studies. A 2010 study from Barclay’s Wealth found that 54 percent of millionaires say they want to continue working in retirement. Globally, 60 percent of those with a net worth of $15 million or more plan to stay involved with work “no matter what their age.

Warren Buffett is still the CEO of a company with a $357 billion market cap at age 85. Charlie Munger is still vice chair, at age 92! No one needs to work less than they do. But they still go tap dancing to work every day.

Similarly, the average age of retirement for Supreme Court justices in the United States is now 78.3, and many work until they die.

Maybe it’s because elite performers tend to be workaholics. But maybe something else is going on.

V.

I recently read this post by Kevin Simler called a Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning. In it, he describes meaning as a product of one’s influence and connection to other people and institutions. According to Simler (I’m oversimplifying), the extent that we are involved in groups and institutions where our actions have an impact on other people is the extent to which we find meaning in our lives. It’s the connections to others that gives us meaning.

When we retire, we remove ourselves from the place where we are most likely to make an impact, work. What’s more, senior citizens tend to be further removed from other institutions that impact people, such as schools. A few institutions like churches welcome contributions from senior citizens, but most social institutions don’t have a place for the elderly. And so as people age, they often stop doing the things that previously gave meaning to their lives. That’s a recipe for obsolesce, depression, and decrepitude.

Warren Buffett can change thousands of lives with a check, a comment, or a stock order. He can make or break a company’s future or provide any charity of his choice the gift of perpetual solvency. His choices make a meaningful impact on others, and so he’s not inclined to delegate those choices, no matter how old he gets.

And so, too, with the rest of the Forbes list. Almost none of them is retired in any real sense – though they all possess wealth that could never be spent no matter how exorbitant their spending habits. Still, they nearly all shirk from a life of pure leisure, removed from work. From Sheldon Adelson, age 82, to Mark Zuckerberg, age 32, they’re still at it.

So, too, is the case for Supreme Court justices. They’re not eager to relinquish their hard-earned influence. Many liberal jurists begged Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire while Obama still had the ability to appoint her successor. She didn’t. And at 83, if she were to die or fall ill while a Republican were in office, it would have grave consequences for the progressive causes she has advocated for her entire life. But you have to respect her determination to stick with it, and she’s still as important and influential as ever.

The point is, those who make an impact with work rarely wish to leave, no matter how old they get.

VI.

I work with startups. And I often run into people who say they’re looking to accumulate wealth and retire early. It’s something I hear once or twice a week.

To me, that’s a huge red flag.

I often ask those entrepreneurs, if you make all that money, what will you do then?

Some say they’ll move to a beach in Central America or to Spain or to Paris.

But then what? Will you really just drink watery Central American beer and go scuba diving for the rest of your life?

Sometimes they’ll tell me about some project they’d work on.

I tell them that’s probably what they should be working on now. (Because if you’re going to succeed at a startup, you better have the enthusiasm to keep working on it regardless of how long it takes and how much money you make short term).

Jobs didn’t retire. Buffett didn’t retire. Zuckerberg won’t retire. And if you have the drive and energy that’s required to create a successful startup, I’m guessing it’s unlikely that you’ll ever retire, either.

VII.

I have a theory about how to get the most out of your professional life. And it’s adopted from a hobby I’ve been doing since I was 12: long-distance running.

Most training strategies in running follow a simple formula. Stress the body near its limits, rest, repeat. The types of stress vary, but the concept is nearly universal. Push the body to the extremes of what it can handle, and then let the body recover fully.

If you don’t stress the body enough, you’ll never improve your fitness level. You’ll never come near your full potential. Stress it to the extreme without rest, and you’ll suffer sickness, injury, or burnout – and you’ll never come near your full potential.

The goal is a goldilocks mixture of stress and rest, alternating between the two.

Some call this type of stress “eustress,” which is a term for the type of stress that is good for the body and mind. There is an optimal level of stress where a person is challenged to get the most out of his or her abilities. The exact formula for the perfect amount of stress varies from person to person and moment to moment. But without exception, every training regiment I have ever seen incorporates the concepts of stress and rest in some form.

VIII.

The standard professional arc for most working Americans doesn’t jibe with the eustress model. From birth to when we enter the working world, the focus is on education and self discovery. Then, from that point to retirement, most professionals work 48-50 weeks a year – and then come to a near-complete halt.

That’s way too much stress in the middle, with not enough rest and recovery, and way too much rest and recovery at the end with nowhere near enough stress.

The ideal mixture is person- and circumstance-specific, but the ideal mixture for all of us should include work stress and work recovery throughout all stages of our lives.

Complete rest leads to atrophy and decay. The over-75 demographic watches more TV than any other age group. That doesn’t sound like sucking the marrow out of life to me. Retirees need eustress as much as any other age group – perhaps more, because of the inevitable process of physical and mental decay that happens to each of us as we age. And the conventional cycle of intense working years followed by a complete cessation of professional activity discourages us for obtaining the healthy stresses we need in our final years.

IX.

And of course, there is the fact that nearly 20% of Americans die before they reach age 65. Not delaying gratification can be a character flaw, but the decision to delay it too much is fraught with peril as well.

X.

So rather than thinking about retirement, I think about my professional life in daily, weekly, quarterly, annual, and other periodic recovery cycles. If I go on a 30-mile mountain run, I need more than one or two rest days to recover. And if I bang out an intense project or a big deal where I’m working much more than normal, I try to take time to incorporate a longer vacation. If I’m burned out, like I was when I left my big-firm law job, I take a sabbatical. But I have no plan to retire. I’ll work and rest throughout my entire life, but as long as I have my faculties about me, I’ll have a project waiting for me at the end of every rest cycle.

From everything I have experienced, that seems to be the only way to get better. And from everything I have learned, that’s the only way to live.

The Strategic Value of Not Planning

I.

About four years ago, I ran my first 100-mile trail race.

I spent four years working myself into shape. In 2008, I weighed 210 lbs. On race day in 2012, I weighed 150.

Leading up to the race, I ran an hour a day, every day during the week, and then three to five hours every Saturday and Sunday.

I prepped everything I could on the mental side too. I read every blog and race report I could find about the race. I watched every YouTube video anyone had made about the race.

And while I was preparing physically and mentally, I planned everything I could.

I had an excel spreadsheet on my computer that estimated what my splits would be at each aid station. I planned scenarios for good days, mediocre days, and bad days. I planned what I would eat at each aid station down to the last calorie, and exactly how much water and electrolytes I would take in, too.

And then race day came.

About 30 seconds after the race started, I realized I was wearing the wrong shoes for the course. I fell for the first time twenty minutes into the race. And then I fell another dozen times in the first half marathon. It took everything in my power not to fall off the side of the trail.

By the time the first aid station came around, I was already about 25 minutes off my worst-case scenario pace.

Then, just after the aid station, I went up a hill and got lost after a missed a flag.

There I was, about three hours into a 24-hour race, and I was already an hour behind schedule.

I had spent hundreds of hours contemplating a range of possible scenarios. And all of them were wrong.

You can read the full race report here. Bottom line: a bunch of stuff happened that I didn’t expect. I struggled but I finished. It worked out ok, though nothing worked out as planned.

II.

After the race, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much time I had wasted planning for the race.

I had always been a planner. And I had always considered myself rational and economical in how I spent my time. But never before had I noticed such a stark disconnect in the time I had spent preparing for something and the return on the planning investment. It made me reconsider not just how I planned for ultra races (an obvious a waste of time), but it made me reconsider the notion of planning any activity.

III.

My thinking now, with limited exceptions, is that most long-term planning is useless.

With most endeavors, I try to limit any instinct I have to plan more than a week in advance.

It’s not that I think that all predictions and plans are useless, it’s that I now have come to believe that most plans created outside an area of expertise or without a rigorous model are no better than baseline guesses. And since most of my predictions and plans aren’t based on a sophisticated model or coming from a place of expertise, I’m usually better off not planning at all.

Stated another way, for every endeavor, there is a moment when the number of variables in a system is large enough or not carefully understood well enough, where planning beyond that stage is a complete waste of time.

That’s a moment I call, “the Maximum Useful Planning Point,” or MUPP.

IV.

In Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, he writes about how much weather forecasters’ predictions have improved over the past 20 years.

But as much as weather forecasts have improved, the value of a long-term weather forecast still fades after a few days. Forecasts a day or two in advance are now highly accurate, but weather forecasts for ten days ahead are still of no value at all. After nine days, weather forecasters’ predictions are no more accurate than the baseline assumption of the average weather in a specific location on any given day based on prior years’ information. And these are the best models in the world. According to Silver’s book:

After a little more than a week, Loft told me, chaos theory completely takes over, and dynamic memory of the atmosphere erases itself . . . Once the atmosphere has had enough time to circulate, the weather patterns bear so little resemblance to the their starting points that the models don’t do any good.

Weather is a dynamic system, in that the behavior of the system at one point in time influences its behavior in the future. And after a certain period of time in any dynamic system, chaos theory takes over and our models no longer serve to predict with any accuracy. That’s what I call the MUPP. For weather predictions right now, the MUPP is nine days for the best computer models.

V.

The point at which one’s predictions cease to predict better than the base case scenario is the MUPP. This would apply equally to any system where you might ask the question, “is planning for a an event X days away useful?” The farther you try to plan into the future, the less accurate your model, and the more dynamic the system, the shorter the MUPP.

Let’s use another example. In chess, the more sophisticated you are, the more you can anticipate different scenarios. And it is a common supposition among novice chess players to think that the more sophisticated you become at chess, the more moves you begin to think ahead. This is true up to a point. But there is a declining utility the farther you think ahead, because if your opponent moves in an unexpected way, the thinking ahead immediately loses all value. With 32 pieces and dozens or even hundreds of possible moves every turn, depending on the stage of the game, most moves by your opponent will render your long-term planning useless. This is why chess masters don’t simply sketch out their entire game plans ahead of time, because there are so many possible moves, that the odds of executing such a plan are infinitesimal. Of course, in chess, knowing what your opponent is trying to do is important, but what is knowable or even probabilistic to know is usually a few turns on the horizon. The MUPP in chess is usually a few moves ahead.

In an endgame situation, a good chess player can absolutely think more than a dozen moves ahead, but that’s in part because it’s possible to force the action in a certain direction. In chess, the MUPP is very situational. In early to mid-game, the MUPP is only a few moves ahead. As variables decrease toward the end, it might be 15 or more moves ahead.

In games and in life, the MUPP is dynamic.

VI.

What I’m ultimately trying to combat here may seem like a bit of a straw man. But it’s something that’s important for me to remind myself. And it’s something I see often enough – organizations or individuals that seek to develop long-term plans or predictions, many of which simply have no hope of corresponding with reality.

The habit of long-term planning pervades every organization I’ve worked with, including most startups.

I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my life constructing plans. And much  frustration has happened when my carefully constructed plan diverged from the messiness and uncertainty of reality. Which is what happened about every time I made a detailed plan.

But part of me thought it was irresponsible not to have a plan.

And then a few months ago, I read this article by tech giant Marc Andreesen about his tips for personal productivity.

His biggest tip for personal productivity? No schedule.

Let’s start with a bang: don’t keep a schedule.

He’s crazy, you say!

I’m totally serious. If you pull it off — and in many structured jobs, you simply can’t — this simple tip alone can make a huge difference in productivity.

By not keeping a schedule, I mean: refuse to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day.

As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.

Want to spend all day writing a research report? Do it!

Want to spend all day coding? Do it!

Want to spend all day at the cafe down the street reading a book on personal productivity? Do it!

When someone emails or calls to say, “Let’s meet on Tuesday at 3”, the appropriate response is: “I’m not keeping a schedule for 2007, so I can’t commit to that, but give me a call on Tuesday at 2:45 and if I’m available, I’ll meet with you.”

Or, if it’s important, say, “You know what, let’s meet right now.”

Clearly this only works if you can get away with it. If you have a structured job, a structured job environment, or you’re a CEO, it will be hard to pull off.

But if you can do it, it’s really liberating, and will lead to far higher productivity than almost any other tactic you can try.

This is, of course, exceedingly difficult. But it is also profound.

If you try to anticipate what the best use of your time is today and tomorrow, you’re probably going to get that right. But much like the weather, if you try to predict what the best use of your time is going to be ten days from now, you’re probably going to be wrong. And so by committing to a schedule ahead of time, you’ll have committed to a non-ideal use of your time. If you try to schedule your life three months, six months, or years ahead of time, you’re likely to be not just wrong, but colossally wrong. And your commitment to doing something other than best use of your time will work against you.

And this to me, is the strategic value of non-planning. Because most people overplan their lives, those who have both the discipline to work hard and the restraint to not overplan can seize opportunities that arise without notice and take advantage of the unpredictable, giving them a competitive advantage over those who are rigorous or inflexible.

Frans Johansson’s book The Click Moment, Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World, focuses on this very point.

This book is about two very simple but highly provocative ideas. The first one is this: success is random, far more random than we have come to believe. The second is that there are a number of specific actions that individuals and organizations can take to capture randomness and focus it in our favor. The reason people tend to consider these ideas provocative is because success, we are often told, is a result of strategy, planning, and careful analysis. Luck, on the other hand, is a force that lies outside of our control. This book rejects these conventional perspectives and proposes a useful and compelling alternative.”

Success almost never comes as a result of long-term planning, but through aggressive exploitation of nascent opportunities, ones that cannot be predicted ahead of time. Most businesses and professionals follow rigid plans and routines in hopes of that hard work leading to success. But, as counter-intuitive as it might sound, the rigid planning and routines often eliminates the possibility of pursuing the best opportunities as they arise.

Mark Zuckerberg was a psychology major who developed a “hot or not”-type App in college, and it happened to develop into a business. Had he maintained the resolve of sticking with psychology he would have never created Facebook. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard because he knew that he couldn’t wait until he graduated and still develop the first interpreter for the Altair. Larry Page and Sergey Brin dropped out of grad school to start Google. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College to get a job at Atari (and later built Apple).

None of these businesses was planned.

So much of what it takes to become a visionary is the ability to abandon a plan, change your mind, and seize an opportunity.

Most startups know this well and have systems to accommodate for that fact. Startup methodology guru Steve Blank is famous for observing, “No business plan survives first contact with a customer.”

Many of the smartest engineering firms are also averse to long-term planning. Most notably, agile development methodology creates schedules according to tight feedback loops, mostly based on cycles shorter than a weather forecast.

Experiment. Test. Repeat. Explore. Make lots of small, calculated bets. Don’t bother with the long-term, rigid plans.

It’s the methodology that’s worked for many of the best-run organizations in the world. But it runs counter to the way we naturally think. We like to believe we can know what we’ll do a year or five years from now. But the moment we pretend we do, we put an arbitrary anchor on our future that limits how we live.

VII.

The ultimate question is: when is it more strategic to have a plan and when is it more strategic not to have a plan? Or, stated another way, how do we figure out the MUPP in any given endeavor and how do we use that information?

My conclusion is this: unless there is data or evidence that shows there is value in planning more than a week or so in advance, that there’s probably no value in doing so.

That feels chaotic. That feels uncertain. That feels unstable. But if you can discipline yourself to work and focus in an environment that is almost wholly absorbed by short-term priorities and immediate feedback cycles, you’ll find yourself able to exploit a range of opportunities most organizations will never even consider.

Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability

A few thoughts on Brexit:

  • After years of handwringing over whether the Greeks would leave the EU, whether the Spanish would leave the EU, or whether the Portuguese would leave the EU, it turns out Britain is the first to leave the EU. I guess it makes sense that a relatively rich country, rather than a relatively poor one, would be the first to leave. Why? Because they can.
  • This vote says as much about referendums as it does about British sentiment or the EU. Even if 99% of the time, most people want a certain political dynamic, as long as a referendum is called at the 1% of the time when they do not, any stable political system can be undone. The lesson here is that referendums are a terrific destabilizing force.
  • Republican forms of government are much more stable than democratic ones.
  • Are weak federalist systems always doomed to failure?
  • The bureaucratic fallout from this will be pervasive and it will last decades. Thousands of laws just got invalidated and there will be a vacuum where thousands of others used to exist. This is a legal cluster without modern precedent.

The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus

Most animals, including humans, can be made to prefer the fake to the real. Sometimes this is funny, and sometimes it is sad. Often both.

There are some birds, such as the graylag goose, that will raise the chicks of other birds, and actually prefer to raise other birds’ chicks, as long as the invader bird looks more impressive than its own offspring. A bird can drop an egg into its nest, and if the egg looks healthier and fitter than its own, it will raise the imposter egg and neglect its own progeny.

This practice can be taken this to ridiculous extremes. To note one colorful example, scientists were able get a graylag goose to try to hatch a volleyball, rather than its own eggs, because, according to the superficial aesthetics of the graylag goose, the volleyball looks more impressive.

Scientists call this phenomenon, “supernormal stimulus.” It is what happens when an exaggerated version of what appeals to evolutionary instincts can cause some one or some thing to engage in behavior counterproductive to its own survival (or the survival of its genes).

I have previously written that the biggest problem that most people face in the developed world is that we are hardwired to live in an environment that is very different from how we now live. Our world is filled with supernormal stimuli, and we aren’t equipped to handle it.

This post is about how the gap between the intensity of supernormal stimuli and more normal, healthy stimuli is growing. And I posit that future generations will be selected for their ability to resist these ever-evolving stimuli (“hyperstimuli”).

I.

Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen invented the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe his research that showed that he could create artificial stimulus that appealed to animals’ instincts more than the original objects for which they’d evolved. As Deirdre Barrett wrote in her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, nature is replete with easily conned animals. Below are a few examples:

Male barn swallows have light brown chests and females choose the ones with the most intense color as an indication of fitness. Scientists with a $5.99 felt-tip marker can darken the chest of a previously scorned male, and suddenly females line up to mate with him.

Male sticklebacks ignored a real male to fight a dummy brighter red than any natural fish. They’d choose to escort an exaggeratedly round-bellied model over a real egg-bearing female.

Tinbergen and other students studied geese and found similar patterns. The characteristic that determined which egg a goose would roll back into the nest—color, size, markings—could be exaggerated in dummy eggs. The graylag goose ignored its own egg while making a heroic attempt to retrieve a volleyball.

And so, too, have we used the term supernormal stimulus to describe the non-naturally occurring treats that we have come to prefer over the real world treats around us.

The classic example of a human supernormal stimulus or a “superstimulus” is a snickers bar. There is no food in nature that is as sweet and as savory as a snickers bar. Our instincts tell us to seek out sweet and savory foods to survive. So Mars produced an inexpensive, tasty treat that satisfies our craving for both salty and sweet foods, and they’ve placed them next to the checkout counters of nearly every grocery store in the United States. And we buy them in huge numbers.

It’s no good for us. We know it’s no good for us. But Mars has to make 15 million a day to keep up with demand. We eat them far more than is evolutionarily adaptive (unless we are starving, the adaptive amount of snickers bars is zero). What’s worse, it serves as a substitute for naturally occurring, more nutritious food, leading to diabetes, obesity, and lots of other problems.

We prefer snickers to fruits and berries. We choose fictional stories about relationships on television over seeking out and developing our own relationships. We prefer to watch elite athletes play sports on television rather than exercising ourselves. Men prefer to watch enhanced models copulating on computer screens more than having sex with our real partners.

Like the geese choosing the volleyball over its own eggs, we often prefer to indulge a fantasy of an exaggerated, fake version of our lives to the real experience.

II.

If you’re still reading, you probably know the backstory.

We evolved to live in scarcity in the savannah 10,000 years ago. We now live in abundance, mostly in cities and towns. We evolved with instincts that tell us we should eat as much as we can, whenever we can. Because in the savannah, we never knew when our next meal would come from. But now most of us live within a short walk or drive from hundreds if not thousands of food options, with cuisine from every part of the world. Now, almost everyone in the developed world has the resources to eat to the point of obesity. And many of us do.

But it isn’t just about food. Beyond food, everyone with discretionary income is bombarded by opportunities for potent forms of superstimuli – drugs, video games, sports, politics, pornography, alcohol – we have opportunities for distraction and stimulation that are many factors more powerful than what our ancestors could have ever thought possible.

And these stimuli keep getting more intense.

III.

Meanwhile, the stimuli in our professional lives aren’t as intense as they once were.

Being chased by a lion, starving to death, or going to war with a neighboring tribe isn’t a very secure way to live, but what it lacks in security, it makes up for in intensity. Near-death experiences have a way of focusing the mind.

By contrast, most of our professional responsibilities today can be distinguished by their non-lethal nature. Whether you spend your days debugging code, drafting legal contracts, managing accounts receivable, or selling widgets, it’s a safe bet that you at least occasionally struggle with motivation. And that’s in part because on a deep, fundamental level, we all know that what we’re doing daily isn’t a matter of life or death. Accounts receivable isn’t a struggle for survival.

On occasion, political dynamics and other pressures create artificial stress that focuses our attention like our ancestor who was chased by a lion. But for most of us, professionally, the greatest stress is of losing one’s job or failing at a business, rather than losing one’s life. And for most of us, if that happens, we’ll just get another job.

There are lots of ways to survive today that are easy to do, albeit incredibly boring. You can survive by working at Taco Bell or working in customer service or working as a lawyer. It’s just that it all damned near bores us to death while we do it. Our security creates that dullness that haunts our lives.

And so we have created an entire genre of non-fiction literature dedicated to the subject of productivity – the study of how to convince ourselves to do what we actually think we want to do. But the real reason we don’t work harder, is that we don’t have to do it to survive.

IV.

The greatest fiction writers explore the most important psychological themes of their eras. Dickens explored the horrors of industrialization and the French Revolution; Conrad penetrated the dark heart of colonialism; Faulkner explored racism and bigotry in the deep south.

David Foster Wallace, perhaps the greatest fiction writer of the last part of the 20th century, was obsessed with subject with boredom. His last book, The Pale King, which was published posthumously, because he killed himself before he finished it, was all about boredom. The book is ostensibly about accounting and the IRS, but the underlying message is about tolerating boredom in the modern world. Wallace wrote, and may have believed, that the ability to overcome boredom was perhaps the most important factor to success. He wrote, “[t]o be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

Because if you are unborable, you won’t get distracted. And if you don’t get distracted, you’re going to be a lot more productive than everyone around you.

V.

Supernormal stimuli are getting more powerful every day. Because of competition for attention and resources, what was once considered tasty and great and entertaining a few years ago is no longer so today. To compete, industry must up the ante in the intensity of the stimulus to get us to notice.

To offer just a few examples:

Compare the clarity, quality, and variety of television today with those of a generation ago.

Compare the quality and intensity of video games with a generation ago.

Compare the ubiquity and intensity of marijuana with a generation ago.

Compare the variety and intensity of beer with a generation ago.

Compare the quantity, availability, and intensity of pornography (you can find your own links) with a generation ago.

30 years ago, HTML didn’t exist. Now, half the planet is online, and the average American spends 15-plus hours a week online.

Compare the stimuli we post on social media to the humdrum nature of our actual lives. We post pictures of our most exciting vacations, our tastiest meals, and our most interesting moments. We follow the lives of the most fabulous and most attractive people we know.

And so on.

The trend is unlikely to stop here. Just as the stimuli of 40 years ago seem quaint and laughably dull today, so, too will the stimuli of the 2050s humble our current forms of diversion.

Our stimuli are evolving according to the dictates of Moore’s law, Edholm’s law, Metcalfe’s law, and the law of accelerating returns.

Meanwhile, our bodies and brains are more or less the same as they were when we were plodding around the Serengeti. Our superstimuli are turning hyperstimuli, but our capacity to resist the hyperstimuli are evolving at a glacier’s pace.

A few years ago, Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote an article about supernormal stimulus and the decline of civilization. In it, he cited a few articles about gamers who had literally died for lack of food or water because of their obsession with video games. These are extreme examples of people succumbing to superstimuli.

But there are others.

Life expectancy has topped out in the United States over the past three years. There has been an increase in alcohol-related deaths. Opioid addiction is rampant. And of course there is the problem of obesity and related physical and social problems.

In total, the average American spends 11 hours a day in front of electronic media.

We spend nearly all of our time absorbed by technology and forms of stimulation that didn’t exist a few generations ago. Basically, how we spend our entire waking lives has almost nothing in common with how all humans lived before 1900.

It isn’t enough to say that we are constantly inundated and bombarded by supernormal stimuli. For many of us, it’s become our whole lives.

VI.

The gap between highly controlled, low-stimulus work environments and potent stimuli options away from work has never been greater. And as the gap between normal stimuli and superstimuli grows larger, so, too, will the impact of these superstimuli on society.

VII.

I don’t know how extensive virtual reality’s impact will be on society, but it would appear to be the ultimate form of supernatural stimulus. It is by definition a fake reality. And the goal is to get the technology to become so impressive that we will either not be able to distinguish it from reality or that we will prefer it to reality. To quote from Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable:

The best of these achieve an unshakeable sense of presence. The usual goal for increasing the degree of realism while you tell a story is to suspend disbelief. The goal for VR is not to suspend belief but to ratchet up belief—that you are somewhere else, and maybe even somebody else . . . Cheap, abundant VR will be an experience factory. We’ll use it to visit environments too dangerous to risk in the flesh, such as war zones, deep seas, or volcanoes. Or we’ll use it for experiences we can’t easily get to as humans—to visit the inside of a stomach, the surface of a comet. Or to swap genders, or become a lobster. Or to cheaply experience something expensive, like a flyby of the Himalayas.

If Kelly is right, we’re just years away from ubiquitous, cheap, fake experiences that we will prefer to real life. In essence, it is the end game for superstimulus.

VIII.

By now, you may believe that the point of this post is to warn about the dangers of supernormal stimulus.

But that’s not really where I’m going with it. That would be a normative judgment, and I’m not interested in those. What’s interesting to me is not lecturing people on the importance of avoiding snickers bars or virtual reality, but rather, the impact of these supernormal stimuli on the future of humanity.

Not just in how it impacts individuals, but how it impacts broader social trends and demographics.

Those who literally kill themselves through addiction to superstimuli are relatively few, but those who choose not reproduce or reproduce less because of obsession with superstimuli are many – and that number may be growing.

Supernormal stimuli are by definition evolutionarily maladaptive. The graylag goose that tries to raise a volleyball won’t reproduce, nor will the gamer who spends all his waking hours playing video games or immersed in virtual reality.

Virtual reality sex might become more pleasurable than real sex soon enough. But if you chose the virtual kind over the natural kind, your genes will end with you.

Perhaps less dramatically, anyone who lives in an urban center probably has friends or acquaintances who have chosen not have children, simply because they prefer an epicurean lifestyle. This is not a phenomenon that occurs in the poorest countries in the world, but rather one that is unique to the wealthiest. It is the equivalent of saying, “I don’t want to fulfill my evolutionary purpose because the food and wine around me is too tasty.”

There is data to back up the anecdotes: Few would argue that heavy drinking is healthy. But the data show that the hardest drinkers may well be drinking themselves out of the gene pool. Of the 25 heaviest-drinking countries in the world, not a single one has a birthrate at or above replacement level. Whether it is causation or correlation I’ll leave for someone else to perform a factor analysis to determine, but there is certainly an open question whether the heaviest drinkers are drinking themselves out of existence.

[Note: I wasn’t able to find any studies that analyzed alcohol or drug consumption and birthrates. Nor of any studies on the subject of heavy video-game playing on birthrates. If anyone knows of a study on either subject, please let me know.]

Contrast this with the birthrates of teetotaling Mormons and Muslims, and it is plain to note the trend of who is going to survive to populate the planet over successive generations, if this trend continues, will be the ones with the capacity or the social structure in place that helps them to resist superstimuli.

We have long known from the Stanford marshmallow experiment and similar studies that the power to delay gratification is strongly correlated with improved life outcomes. But as the stimuli around us grow in their intensity, so too might the importance of this trait in terms of creating improved personal and genetic outcomes.

Perhaps more than any other trait, those who can resist will be those who inherit the earth.

Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want

I’ve struggled with this blog to decide what its identity will be.

I have toyed with a few different sequences in terms of timing of posts, frequency of posts, and the structure of content.

But, seeing as how I am not doing this for money or for any sort of professional gain, I have decided that there is only one format that makes sense:

I’m going to post whatever I want, whenever I want to do so.

Joyous and Swift now has over 100 posts, so it has that base as a starting point. That makes me happy. But I found myself over the last few days struggling to string together posts day after day while busy with other things. I think the quality was starting to suffer because of a desire to post on a certain schedule.

Screw that. No more struggle. From now on, I post whatever I want, whenever I want to do so.

And that’s all I have to say about that.