Ambivalence to Achievement

Most books and articles on self-development follow a common theme. The theme is something along the lines of: “17 steps to happiness, wealth, and good looks.” There are some variations on the 17 steps and there are some variations on the ultimate rewards. But the theme of steps and rewards are pretty consistent.

“Do A, B, and C, and you’ll get X, Y, and Z.”

My approach these days is a little different. My approach is, “Stop thinking you need X, Y, and Z, and you’ll be ok.” Maybe you won’t be handsomer or richer, but maybe you’ll realize that kind of stuff doesn’t matter. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably already have way too much stuff. And you don’t need more stuff to be happy. You just need to realize – and keep top of mind – that more stuff is not where happiness lies.

So, too, with accomplishments and achievement. Accomplishments and achievements are like trophies for the ego. They are our internal way of telling ourselves that we are creatures of worth that matter in the universe. If we accomplish more than our neighbors, then maybe our lives are more important. We want to matter – and by focusing our energy and attention on achievements, we work to establish ourselves as objects of primary importance in the universe. But perhaps the need to think we are better than others is the very source of our unhappiness. Dump the need to feel like we’re better than others, and the anxiety of feeling unimportant will go away.

I used to think that my intellectual achievements were what mattered most. And that I should outsource everything else I could afford to outsource. That I should focus my time and energy on writing and AI and law and not waste my time washing dishes or cleaning my house. But now I’m not so sure. I think that a full day spent cleaning can be as meaningful as a full day spent writing, if it’s done with full attention and purpose. That cleaning my house is as important as winning an award. Or perhaps there’s no difference.

I’m trying to move from a philosophy of aspiring to achieve more to one of aspiring to achieve less. Or – better yet, a philosophy of ambivalence to achievement.

Metarules for Games

[Note: If you don’t like strategy games, this might seem a little esoteric. I personally feel that this post also has broader life-strategy implications. But that might be wishful thinking on my part.]

I play a lot of games. I believe that we are in a golden age of games, and that these games – in contrast to watching TV, surfing the internet, or other forms of passive entertainment – provide a rich opportunity for engaged and healthy social interaction.

Learning a new game follows a pattern not unlike the pattern of a person’s life. You start out clueless and helpless, without any idea of what to do or what to expect. You don’t know the language or rules of the game. You pick up things bit by bit. You learn the rules, and then you start to learn the strategy. If you play against someone who has played before, you will probably lose. But then you build your own unique mental model of how to survive and thrive in the game. And then it becomes fun. Sooner or later, you win. And then you lose again. Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve followed this process enough times where I’ve started to think about whether any of the lessons I’ve learned from some of the games are applicable to all or most of the games. And I think the answer is a qualified yes.

The following list is my attempt to summarize such a set of metarules for all, or at least most, games. Here goes:

  1. There is no such thing as a universal strategy

The first metarule in gaming is that there is no such thing as a universal rule of gaming.

This may seem a little Zen-koan-like, but I believe it to be true. No game that’s worth playing allows one strategy to dominate all the time. In any game that is better constructed than checkers, Connect 4, or Monopoly, there will be no universal strategy. If there were a universal strategy, there would be no point in playing.

There are simple strategies in chess that allow you to win a match in as few as four moves. But if your opponent has even a basic awareness of how to play, that strategy won’t work. There are more sophisticated starting moves that can put pressure on any weak opponent, but those strategies aren’t capable of ensuring victory in competitive tournaments for 6 year olds. To get good at chess, you need to develop a rich set of mid-to-late game strategies. And all are subject to variations, mistakes, and exploitation at the hands of strong opponents.

There is no universal strategy, which creates an inherent uncertainty and variability in all well-constructed games. It is a necessary component of the game-playing process.

  1. If your opponent knows your strategy and is prepared for it, you’ll increase your chances of success by adopting a new strategy

This ties in to the first point. As soon as your opponent knows a strategy, they’ll be prepared, and they’ll likely adopt one of two approaches to react to your strategy. Either they’ll copy your strategy, or they’ll counter your strategy. If they copy your strategy, then your strategy no longer provides a strategic advantage. The winner will be determined by the whimsies and circumstances of the game – turn order, card order, or some other game feature.

If your opponent knows a good counterstrategy, then your initial strategy not only fails to provide a strategic advantage, it becomes a strategic disadvantage. Which is why, when you realize that your opponent knows and is prepared for your strategy, that you should consider a new strategy.

  1. To win games against savvy opponents, play everyone’s game as well as your own

First you learn the rules of a game. Then you figure out the strategy. But the only way to really get into the dance that makes a game rich and powerful is to keep in mind not just your own moves, but everyone else’s as well.

When one player is aware of not just his own moves but those of his opponents, it creates an enormous competitive advantage.

When all players learn this, it usually creates something akin to a competitive equilibrium (depending on the relative skills of the players and whatever randomness features make up the game).

  1. The player with the fewest wasted or inefficient moves wins

As players gain sophistication, games are more often decided not by error, but by which player has the most efficient strategy. What constitutes an efficient strategy varies from game to game, but in many games, you’ll find yourself in a position where you realize that the move you’ve just made was wasted, because a target objective was blocked off by an opponent and otherwise rendered not useful because of the conditions of the game.

In many games – such as Istanbul and Broom Service, two recent Kennerspiel des Jahres winners – it’s nearly impossible to avoid this fate. But in those games, and in many others, those who waste the least win the most.

  1. Find features that yield cumulative benefits early, reap rewards late

Albert Einstein is famous for saying, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”

Many games have features that function like compound interest. Whether it’s a resource or option that you can acquire, it pays for itself many times over. In a game where the goal is to maximize potential based on constrained resources, if there is feature that functions like this, then that is probably the feature that will determine the winner. Almost without exception, the key to these features is acquiring them early. Examples of this include the resource cards in 7 Wonders and high-value plantations in Puerto Rico. Secure an advantage in the features of a game that have cumulative benefits early; prioritize that advantage over an early scoring lead every time.

  1. Sometimes the best move is no move

Most game players have an unshakeable bias for action on every turn. We’re only able to make decisions and take action during a limited percentage of the time we play in any given game, so when we have a chance to take action, that’s usually what we do. Yet many games allow for discretionary moves or allow for resource-building moves. And there are many games that offer rewards for those who exercise restraint and avoid mediocre moves in favor of fewer, stronger, targeted moves.

The popular Ticket to Ride is a great example of this. Weaker players aggressively lay track as soon as they are able. Stronger players often refrain from showing where they’re planning to go and gather resources until they are able to quickly construct a route, giving competitors little time to react.

  1. The only way to get better is to lose more than you win

When I was young, and when I first started playing strategy games as an adult, I was a terrible loser, prone to pouty behavior and tantrums. But as I played more, I grew more accustomed to losing. And the more you lose, the more losing is no big deal.

They are games, after all.

If there’s one rule to growth, it’s that regular and consistent losing is a necessary precursor to winning. Get used to being in over your head. Get used to feeling lost and confused. Get used to losing. Find everyone around who is good enough to beat you. Learn from the experience. And then when you find yourself winning more than you lose, find a new game. Find a new challenge.

When the process of learning and stimulating yourself means more than winning or losing, then you’ll enjoy playing, regardless of the outcome.

Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea

Today, I will make myself a cup of tea. And then I will drink that cup of tea.

I will spend twice as much time meditating as I usually do.

I will have to work. I have plenty of little things to do. Nothing major. That’s probably for the best.

I will go for a short run around the park at noon. I ran hard yesterday, so I will run easy today. My body needs rest.

I won’t spend time surfing online or reading about politics today. I won’t watch TV. I’m pretty sure those things won’t make me happy.

I have a client meeting this afternoon. I helped a man start a business last year. Now I’m going to go visit his business now that it is open.

I will walk my dogs before dinner. I will smile and greet everyone I see. I will try to be polite and kind to everyone around me. I think there are a lot of people that need to feel warmth right now. I will do my best.

After dinner, I’ll play guitar in my basement. And then I’ll read a book.

I’ve been reading Crooked Cucumber, a book about the life of Shunryu Suzuki, the man who popularized Zen Buddhism in the United States. It’s excellent.

I can control whether I make a good cup of tea or a bad cup of tea. And then I can focus on appreciating that cup of tea while I drink it. If I can focus on those two things completely, then maybe it bodes well that I can have a good day today.

Refuse To Even Say His Name

I’m taking a vow to try to never again say the current republican candidate for president’s name. I will not click on another article with his name in the title. If he’s on the TV, I’ll turn it off. If other people talk about him in my presence, I will try to remain silent.

I’m sure I’ll slip up. I’ll say it now and again. It’s hard not to: He’s everywhere in the news.

And if I do say his name without thinking, or if I do find myself clicking on article with his name in the title, that’s ok, too. I’ll stop myself, and then donate a dollar to charity. I’m going to give to Watsi, which funds medical care for impoverished people around the world. And since this article is about him, I’ll start with $5 now.

I’ve seen people do this before – and do this effectively – with other ugly words that aren’t polite to say in public; there’s no reason it can’t work with his name.

It’s one small way to try to make something beautiful out of something ugly.

This way, hopefully, I’ll break myself from my own nasty habit of talking about him, and help some people in need while doing it.

The most effective way to defeat a demagogue is with the silent treatment. Demagogues are immune to reason and logic. But they need attention to fuel them. Starve them of attention, and you will defeat them.

I believe that every moment of cocktail conversation, every frustrated rant among friends, every article we read, and every whisper of his name only enhances his power.

So if you hate what he’s done to public discourse, just stop talking about him. Stop thinking about him. Purge him from your life.

It’ll be hard at first. But if we pay attention and remind those we love to do the same, we’ll be successful enough. And when we forget, something good will come out of that, too.

This isn’t about political affiliation. I have voted for politicians in four political parties. I believe most presidential candidates are decent and honorable, with differing perspectives, trying to do their best in an environment of compromise. I would never have written anything like this about Romney, Obama, McCain, Kerry, Gore, or Bush.

I don’t pretend to have much influence. I doubt many people, if any people, will follow my lead.

But I know that I’ll be happier by simply refusing to let the man’s name to enter my world.

I urge everyone else to do the same. If we all do this, sooner or later, he’ll be gone.

Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing

For many of us, the hardest thing to do is nothing.

We are hardwired to fill every waking moment with some activity, no matter how trivial. We flip on the radio or TV while getting ready in the morning. We listen to podcasts while driving. We check Twitter or Facebook while on the toilet.

When I sat down to write this little blog post, I flipped through the channels to see if any good soccer games were playing on TV. And then I scrolled online, looked at some friends’ running blogs, and watched a video about some random 5k race in Cork, Ireland.

This is what I did while getting ready to write a blog post about the importance of eliminating the trivial from my life. So I suppose I should begin this with the caveat that I am at least a partial hypocrite about what I’m saying here.

The results of a 5k race in Ireland or a soccer game in Spain will not make my life better or worse. Most Facebook updates are quintessentially trivial. And every second I spend with my attention occupied by crap like that, I’m not doing something that truly matters to me. I’m not doing something great.

It’s the third beer on a Thursday; the seventh season of the TV show we only kind of like; the middle-of-the-season football game where we don’t even care about the outcome; the book we’re reading that’s just okay; it’s the fourth time of the day you check Facebook; the meeting you go to because you don’t have anything better to do.

This is where greatness goes to die.

We’re so anxious when we have nothing to do, that we scurry to find something to occupy our time and attention. And by filling our time with the trivial or the mediocre, we never do what really matters.

Gardening and the Inherent Subjectivity of What Constitutes a Great Thing

On a long enough time horizon, the importance of everything we do is ultimately the same.

But even if nothing we do matters on a cosmic time horizon, every decision we make most certainly has consequences for our own lives. If we live in the city or the country. If we marry our high school sweetheart or someone we meet on Tinder or if we never get married at all. The job we work. What we eat and drink. How we spend every minute of our free time.

Decisions matter.

My grandfather loved to garden. He built a greenhouse out of spare parts from my uncle’s farm in his late 80s. He was walking out to that greenhouse when, at age 90, he had a heart attack and died.

Gardening gave him joy. He would have been proud to know that he died working on something he built with his own hands, something he loved.

I don’t like gardening at all. I pay someone to mow my lawn.

I like writing blog posts like this. This is my garden.

I don’t think my blog matters more or less than my grandfather’s greenhouse. But I know writing matters more to me than gardening.

I know myself well enough to know the things that make me happy and the things that give me joy. And it’s those things — the things that give me joy — where I know should spend my time.

Make a List

Too many people try to find one thing that gives them joy. Some people are like that – they have one thing they enjoy doing at the exclusion of all others. Some people have found their Rushmore.

But for most people, it’s not just one thing: It’s a series of things.

I think it’s helpful to make a list of what you consider to be great things. And to only do those things.

Walking through the Grand Canyon at dawn. Playing with your daughter. Taking pictures of mountain lakes. Kayaking. Lying in the grass with the sun beating down on your face. Yoga. Recording an album. Swing dancing. Fly fishing. Going for a walk in the park. Spending time with your best friends. Volunteering for your favorite charity. Whatever you love. It can be a mountain or a garden or a sandwich. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. Greatness is often very simple.

Figure out the things that give you joy. Make a list. Write it down. Keep it close.

And then, in your spare time, do only those things. Or do nothing.

(And if your “great things” list intersects with what you do professionally, well then you, my friend, have won the jackpot.)

It’s your list. If watching Dexter truly gives you joy, then put it on the list. But if what you’re doing isn’t on your list of great things, then why are you doing it? 

Washing Dishes

Some mundane tasks are derivative of great things that we may take for granted. If you’re washing dishes, it’s because you just had food to eat – that you’re probably not hungry. To me, that’s a great thing. If you’re changing diapers, it’s because you have a child. You’re helping a human being grow to maturity. That’s a great thing. Some great things have side effects that may be unpleasant or boring. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less reflective of the fact that you’re living a great life.

The Importance of Doing Nothing

The real challenge with this way of living is nurturing the ability the ability to avoid doing mediocre things by doing nothing. It’s the act of doing nothing that forces us to think, “ok, so what do I really want to do now?” And then going back to the list of great things and focusing our attention there.

When we let our attention drift or get carried away by Twitter or mediocre TV, our preciously lives slowly get eaten away by activities, which, according to our own standards and opinions, don’t matter to us.

Far be it for me to decide what matters to you. But we should all decide what matters to us. And if that’s not how we spend our time, then the results will be easy to predict.

Do great things, or do nothing. That’s it. That’s the secret to a great life.

All you have to do is remember what those great things are. And that part is actually really easy.

The hard part – the real trick – is the doing nothing part. The hard part is saying no to the constant stream of mediocre things screaming for our attention.

But if you can manage the doing nothing part, the great things part will take care of itself. If you have the courage to do nothing instead of doing what isn’t great, you will do great things.

If you cut out what isn’t worthy your time – the only stuff left to do – is the stuff that really matters.

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.