As of today, I have gone exactly 150 days without playing a single video game.
This represents something of a minor miracle for me. This is almost certainly (I can’t say certainly only because of the addled memory I have from playing so many video games) the first time I have ever gone remotely this long without playing video games since I first touched the unholy blight that is a video game.
I used to read books as a kid. This was fantastic. My vocabulary, spelling, grammar, writing, and general language skills skyrocketed effortlessly. I probably became more intelligent and imaginative and creative. Reading fostered a fecund brain.
And then one day a flyer came in the mail, advertising a ridiculously cheap copy of Total Annihilation for whatever reason. My dad decided it couldn’t hurt to buy it for me.
How terribly, terribly wrong he was.
Really fucking terribly wrong.
But it wasn’t his fault, really. It was my best friend’s fault. I got the game, and promptly loaded it and began playing. Only problem was video games were so foreign to me that I couldn’t actually figure out how to move. And so the game was scary as shit to me - there I was, a tiny, helpless sessile commander surrounded by terrifying black fog of war on all sides, unable to do absolutely anything but wait for the enemy to inevitably chance upon me after an interminably long period of time and blow me to pieces.
The game sucked. I hated video games and decided never to play again.
But then one day, I happened to stop by my friend George’s house, and he decided to show me how to play Starcraft. It seemed reasonably interesting, but nothing that special. Pokemon was still a lot cooler. I mentioned off-handedly, however, that it looked somewhat similar to this one game I got back in the mail ages ago. George’s interest was piqued, and he asked if he could borrow the game. I readily agreed, since I hated that terrifying piece of shit.
The next day, he got back to me and told me that it was pretty much the greatest game ever. Highly confused by what he possibly found enjoyable about the game, I demanded he show me how to play. So he did.
And he was right. It was the best fucking game ever. So I immediately stole the disc back from him and that was pretty much the end of my being productive for the next decade or so of my life.
I couldn’t get off video games after that. I stopped reading. I stopped sleeping. I stopped doing my homework. I stopped eating. At one point, I even peed out the window because my soul belonged to video games and I was hiding from my parents in the wee hours of the morning playing and didn’t want to wake them up by flushing the toilet. God, life was bad.
I literally spent an entire summer doing nothing but waking up, playing Total Annihilation, eating and crapping only when absolutely necessary, going to sleep well into the wee hours of the morning, and repeating the process ad infinitum until summer was over.
The next summer and part of the school year I spent over 2000 hours playing this one online TBS clone of Advance Wars called Battalion. I’m actually not sure how I managed to log so many hours on this game, but I was highest ranked player out of thousands and regularly kicked everyone’s ass. Had every map memorized and knew exactly how much each unit could move and how much damage each unit would inflict on every other unit on every type of terrain.
RPGs were even worse. Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment - everything under the sun absorbed my life.
MMORPGs were the worst of all though. Having no friends (possibly as a direct consequence of playing so many video games) made the desire to socialize with others while playing the video games that precluded me from having friends immense. Had a four week stint of Runescape where I got to level 56 and then decided the game was shit and I hated my life and never wanted to play again and gave away my account. Same story multiple times on Maple Story.
And fucking Dofus. I hate that game with a burning passion. The most vivid memories I have of high school are me procrastinating until 2am before doing homework because I just had to play Dofus all day until then. Well, Dofus and Gunz. Anyway, my life sucked balls and I wanted to die the next day at school. The next day being every day of my life.
Junior and senior year of high school I started to finally phase out of being a hardcore gamer, but the plague never fully left me. Instead I’d have relapses every now and then, which could be brought on by any small perturbation in my life, such as getting sick, or simply being hit with a trigger that gave me an unquenchable urge to play something, anything. And then I’d end up being stuck and playing a game for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months, having it suck hundreds to thousands of hours from my life.
When I got an iPad, things got even worse. To date, I’ve actually found no other use for the iPad other than playing video games and watching movies. I fucking love the thing, but it’s fucking terrible (love-hate is clearly the only kind of emotion I have learned to develop over my lifetime).
I played Modern Combat so much I hit level 72, which takes killing I believe over 10,000 people with headshots. I was so good I could beat hackers at the game, with their one-shot kill and 10 shots/second and lightning speed.
Worst fucking thing ever.
Things finally came to a cliff 150 days ago, when I was hanging out with one of my best friends from high school. He was leaving the next day or something like that, and we decided the best thing to do was to find the original version of Civilization and play it on DOSBox.
Around 3 am or so, we finally wiped out every single starting civilization. But a few civilizations had respawned, and we didn’t know where. But we had come so far I decided we couldn’t just not have closure now. So we decided to build a shitton of transports and systematically search every single square inch of the map.
By 5 am, we managed to locate and wipe out every single civilization except the Chinese. But the Chinese! We had absolutely no idea where those bitches were. We’d covered every single pixel of water, and hit every major body of land except the tiny islands. They had to be on a tiny island. But that was just pretty much impossible to thoroughly search.
But we tried anyway. By 6 am, I finally decided to give up and engage in an alternate strategy - just end turns until the Chinese found us.
By 7 am, they finally found us and we wiped their sorry asses out.
But the damage had been done. The monumental waste of time spent doing absolutely nothing of value became the final straw for me, and I decided then and there that I’d never play videogames again in my life.
I made it a rule to myself that if I ever touched a video game again, I’d instantly have to pay $20 to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which I really didn’t want to do, being that I’m a vehement atheist and all.
This combined with the fact that I’m cheap as shit meant that as much as I loved playing video games, I could never justify paying $20 for the marginal enjoyment gained from a split second of playing a video game.
And so, miraculously, 150 days later, I find myself here amazed and incredibly grateful 150-day-younger-me decided to do this.
Video games are fucking worthless. Put against the opportunity cost, they have contributed absolutely nothing positive to my life and they have made me miss out on infinitely more valuable pursuits in my childhood, like learning how to code or write novels or start businesses.
I have a terribly addictive and obsessive personality. God forbid I ever start doing drugs or drinking alcohol.
Obsession is a wonderful boon when directed fruitfully - in the act of creation, for instance. Creating a business, a story, a work of art, a robot, a Science Island - wonderful.
When directed into an endless shithole like video games, it’s pretty much the worst thing that can ever happen. I’m glad I got out of that one.
Incidentally, it’s also been 150 days without TV shows for me. I find those mostly worthless too. Sure, if I had infinite time, I’d probably spend half of it doing this worthless shit and enjoying myself somewhat thoroughly (this is a tragic argument against immortality), but in the face of opportunity cost? Fuck no.
We decide what brings us pleasure in life. It’s a common argument that these things are not entirely bad and completely worthless, because they bring us happiness and enjoyment, and that is worth something. But for me, at least, it’s not. 1. Because the self-hate that comes afterwards totally cancels out any enjoyment I get while indulging, and 2. because we can choose what makes us happy.
Why choose the things that harm us? Smoking might make us happy. Heroin most certainly does. Alcohol as well. Gambling, perhaps. And video games and tv shows.
But we don’t have to be dictated by our present desires. If we decide they aren’t helping us become better people, why don’t we take on better pleasures? Working out and running, for instance. Reading. Building something. Playing with math and conducting scientific experiments :).
The world’s filled with an infinite number of things that can bring us momentary enjoyment. Some of them are harmful in the long run, and some are immensely helpful. Why not fill our time with the helpful ones?
If this post doesn’t make any sense or sounds like shit, it’s because video games destroy your mind. Boom. Point proven.
When I think about how fortunate I am in life to not have some terrible debilitating disease, to not be mentally retarded, to not be a starving African child, to not be terminally ill, and to otherwise be in the peak of physical and mental health and with unlimited opportunity on the horizon, there’s a caveat.
And that caveat is I am fortunate, ridiculously fortunate - for now. Tomorrow, the proverbial bus may hit me and I may be a quadriplegic. I could find out I have cancer, or some rare recessive late onset fatal disease. Who the fuck knows, I might even start growing a second skeleton.
This is what motivates me to work fast in life, and try to achieve success while I can, because I can now…and perhaps only for now. The future is never secure, and we never know what it’ll bring. Something about not counting chickens before they hatch.
This leads to my life motto, which is “Live like you’re going to live forever or die tomorrow”. Fuck if I know what it really means, but I think the point is to find the right balance between trying to achieve the dreams we yearn for and experiencing all the things we want to feel in life while we still can, while still taking great care of ourselves and constantly keeping the long term in mind and positioning ourselves to be optimally placed in the far future.
All we can be certain of is what we have for now, so let’s make the most of it, because we might not be able to tomorrow.
At the same time, we very well may be able to make the most of it tomorrow and for the rest of eternity, so let’s be outrageous optimists and prepare for the long term, and the very long term.
There’s this interesting notion that desperation is the best thing that can happen to us. I just watched two movies for Mother’s Day with my mom - The Great Gatsby, and Iron Man 3. In a way, both were about desperation, but the last one explicitly, so I’ll start there.
Aldrich Killian, main villain, reveals that he owes his success to Tony Stark - after Tony rejected him and left him hanging outside on the roof after a party in Switzerland, Aldrich was driven to despair and desperation. After entertaining the thought of suicide, he suddenly comes to the revelation that he now has a driving force in life: to exact his revenge on Tony, and in his desperation he resolves to see his enmity to its end. So ultimately, Tony’s having left him with no where to turn was what made him into the very successful supervillain he is today.
Same bit of a story with Gatsby. Grows up desperately poor, and it’s that extreme desperation that makes him resolve that somehow, some way, he will make something of himself, and chase his green light to its fruition.
Similar examples can be found littered through real life. Perhaps like Buckminster Fuller, who at 32 was jobless, impoverished, and with a dead daughter. Or perhaps Charlie Chaplin, who was sentenced to a workhouse when he was just 7.
To be honest, I think I’ve read more accounts of successful people encountering significant hardships than not. Whether or not their success is borne out of the hardship is up for debate. Perhaps hardship is just oft found hand in hand with success for the simple reason that trying for something big is hard and risky, and more often than not failure is the result.
To put it another way, and perhaps more correctly, perhaps success is most often achieved by those who want it the most. And who can anyone really want anything more than the truly, madly desperate? Who, perhaps, dreams of being rich more than the hopelessly impoverished?
I honestly don’t know the answer. Sometimes I oscillate between opinions. Sometimes, I think the best thing to do is to forsake everything I have, give myself a thousand dollars and go somewhere entirely on my own and try to make it up from there. Perhaps, when I realize there really is no other option left, I’ll make my way up.
But other times, I think about how wise this line of thought really is. What happens when the desperation goes away, as it inevitably will if success comes knocking? Does that mean the desire to succeed diminishes as well?
It doesn’t seem so, really, looking at anecdotal cases. It seems the ambitious tend to stay ambitious, and continue to climb even after reaching astounding heights of success. They keep chasing after the green light, which keeps receding ever further [this is not entirely accurate, as I believe the green light may have been implicating the past as opposed to some distant, dreamy future].
So given that, maybe desperation doesn’t really have much to do with it at all, but for possibly sparking that initial ambition and will to power. But after that, it’s self-sustaining, and keeps moving up of its own accord. The problem, then, becomes not having lack of ambition, but not knowing when to stand back and not lose oneself to the endless race.
Perhaps desperation is an answer to those of us who have not yet had the burning desire sparked within us. But perhaps it is wholly unnecessary for those of us who burn already with our own fires. We’ll keep moving up, desperate or not. We’re always desperate in our own minds. We’ve got something to prove to someone, and it proven it must be.
Who took a chance on you? That’s the Startup Edition question for this week, and I love it.
Pretty much everyone ever has taken a chance on me, so I’m grateful to this question for finally compelling me to acknowledge and be thankful to all the people who have helped me get to where I am.
Here are a few of the entities that have taken a chance on me:
My parents, when they decided to nurture and feed me
Harvard, when they decided to teach me
The Thiel Fellowship, when they decided to invest in me
My cofounder, when he decided to work with me
My girlfriend, when she decided to love me
My friends, when they decided to influence and be influenced by me
Myself, when I decided to live on my own terms and run for my dreams
Startup Chile, when they decided to give us free monies
Svbtle, when Dustin decided to let me ramble on like an idiot here
The trillions of cells in my body, who decided to group up and selflessly work together and sacrifice their individual selves when necessary, trusting that I would give them better odds for successfully perpetuating their genes than they would have by individually striking out as selfish unicellular organisms.
And anyone who has ever decided to help me ever, in a big or a small way, taking the gamble that it would somehow make the world a better place. Thank you.
However, one person and one instance shines as a forever indelible beacon in my mind, and it’s that one person and one instance that is the focal point of this post.
As noted in my previous post, I was a nervous, shy, insignificant kid. I was born a year after my parents immigrated to the US from China. They knew no one, and as immigrants we made few friends and moved constantly. From New Jersey to Kentucky, from Kentucky to Minnesota, and finally from Minnesota to Hinsdale, Illinois.
Before Hinsdale, I never really managed to learn how to make friends and ground myself. But for some reason, Hinsdale was different. Perhaps it was because a sense of permanency was finally settling in this time. My father had finished all his postdoctoral work, and had secured a stable job as a chemist. Perhaps I thought this might really be our last move, and I could look forward to calling this our home.
The kids here were also different, I think. I arrived at the last week of kindergarten, and made a small but steadfast group of friends relatively quickly. They were incredibly accepting and tolerant from what I remember, and that probably had something to do with being part of a very wealthy and well-educated community (we lived in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of town but reaped all the fantastic benefits of the school system. I have awesome parents). My best friend lived in a million dollar mansion and had an acre for a backyard. Loved going over to his house.
So while I was still a pretty shy kid, for the first time in my life I was actually pretty content in Hinsdale. The years passed, and soon I found myself in the fourth grade, under the tutelage of the one and only Ms. Penticoff.
I had heard rumors about Ms. Penticoff. About how strict and austere she was. By the time I finally saw her on the first day of class, I was terrified of her. Seeing her in the flesh only reinforced that fear. She never smiled, never laughed, and only ever told us what to do.
I doubt I ever spoke up in class, for fear of humiliating myself and invoking the wrath of the great Ms. Penticoff. I’m certain I never stood out, or was anything out of the ordinary in any way whatsoever. But regardless, I was happy here, and I didn’t want anything to change.
But change decided to happen anyway. Just a few months into the school year, my parents informed me we were going to move yet again. We were going to move up in life and buy a real house and get out of the shithole apartment we were in.
This devastated me. Hinsdale was the only place in the world I had ever felt like I belonged and could call home, and now it was going to get wiped away and I’d have to start from scratch yet again (in retrospect, this was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to make myself stand out later and not be forever content with being the insignificant shy kid).
I couldn’t bear to think that I’d have to start all over again. I hated the fact that my parents wanted to move and was perfectly happy staying in our little apartment, which suited our needs just fine. But obviously my opinion had no weight at all, so about a month before our move my parents informed my school that I would be transferring, and all I could do was mope to myself in my self-pity.
Up until the day before I left, Ms. Penticoff gave no indication that she was ever aware that I would be leaving. I remembered when another classmate had left earlier in the year - there had been no fanfare, and he had simply been there one day, and gone the next. I figured the same thing would happen to me, particularly being the wallflower that I was. One day I’d be there, the next I’d be gone with a few platitudes, and in a week I’d be just a distant memory. Oh well.
The day I was supposed to leave eventually came, and I walked to school just like any other day, and sat down in class just like any other day. I expected nothing out of the ordinary. But Ms. Penticoff changed everything.
About halfway through the class, she turns around and addresses me.
“Well, Ben, I guess you’re leaving us.”
“And your birthday is in February, right?”
I nodded again.
“And it’s October now, so we won’t be able to celebrate your birthday…”
I was confused and had absolutely no idea where this was going.
“So I figured we could celebrate it now. I’ve brought ice cream sandwiches for everyone!”
And then she promptly went to retrieve boxes of ice cream sandwiches from a refrigerator.
I was mindblown. I couldn’t have imagined this happening in my wildest dreams. A birthday party is a huge deal in the fourth grade. And ice cream sandwiches? Ice cream sandwiches are my fucking favorite. This was probably the happiest moment in my entire childhood.
But then she took it one step further.
“And I made everyone make goodbye cards for you, so here those are.”
And that was it for me. By far the happiest moment I’d ever experienced. I was on top of the world. Everyone had made me goodbye cards, including my crush! I’d treasure that forever and it meant everything to me.
I couldn’t even fathom how she had possibly managed to put this all together without me knowing. And the effort! She had gone to all this trouble for me! I distinctly remembered she absolutely did not do this for the other kid who had left our class. It was special. It was singularly for me. I couldn’t even begin to express the gratitude I felt towards her for making this immense gesture of goodwill.
“Keep in touch, okay?”
I nodded one last time and promised I would. And then I went home, still riding on clouds.
And then my parents told me that guess what? Plans had changed and I’d be going to school one last day again on Monday. Yeah. That was the shittiest and most awkward Monday ever.
But I never forgot that tiny act of pure goodness my fourth grade teacher did for me, and I like to think it made all the difference. After we moved to Plainfield and I once again found myself alone, I’d daydream constantly about following up on my promise to keep in touch.
But I could never bring myself to. Why? Because I still couldn’t explain to myself why she had possibly decided to single me out and throw that ice cream sandwich party for me. I never felt worthy of that ice cream sandwich. Why me? What was I? I was no one. Nothing. I felt like I needed to prove myself to her before I could get back in touch. I felt like I had to prove that I was worthy of that ice cream sandwich party, that the chance she took on me paid off, the faith she had in me was well-founded, and that I would end up making something of myself.
I’d daydream about one day being rich, and being able to surprise her one day with a million dollar check, and tell her that I’d never forgotten about her, and that that one little act of goodness had made all the difference in my life.
After I got into Harvard, I felt that maybe I had proved myself enough to go back to her and let her know that the ice cream sandwiches paid off, that they hadn’t gone to waste and that I had made something of myself because of her faith in me.
But I never got in touch.
I still haven’t. It’s on my Google Calendar right now as we speak, and every two weeks Google emails me telling me to “Connect with Ms. Penticoff! Tell her how much she meant to you!”
But I never do. I still feel like I have to prove myself, that I was worthy of those ice cream sandwiches. It, truth be told, is still an immense driving force in my desire to succeed and make something of myself in life. And I will never forget that day.
Who took a chance on me? Ms. Penticoff, my fourth grade teacher did. For one day and forever, she made me feel like I was special. Like I was important. Like I mattered. She made me feel like she believed in me and put her faith in me, and now I feel like I can’t let her down. I’m living for myself, but I’ve never forgotten, and I never will forget, those ice cream sandwiches.
Takeaway? Little things matter. Sometimes, they matter the most. Never underestimate what impact the smallest of your actions will have. I’m going to make a conscious effort to do more small acts of good after reflecting about this here. It might just change everything.
Thank you, Ms. Penticoff. One of these days, very soon, I promise, I will get back in touch.
That’s my passionate battle cry for this post. I feel very strongly about this subject, as I firmly believe it is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Today we are going to speak about being ‘born this way’. Over and over and over again in my life I’ve encountered cases of people who believe they just are one way or another, and there’s nothing they can do about that. We’re either happy or sad, lucky or unlucky, impulsive, short-tempered, bad at sports, stupid, slow to get movies, shy, introverted, awkward, manic-depressive, emotional, logical, bad at math, intrinsically entrepreneurial or intrinsically not, risk-taking, impatient, nonconformist, and so on. You get the point.
God damn it.
I feel strongly about this because I used to be the exact same way. I thought we all just were as we were. I was a shy, incredibly awkward introverted Asian kid. I’d look at all the popular kids and wish I could be popular. I’d have all these crushes, and wish I was one of the kids that was just somehow naturally good at talking to girls. I was constantly bullied by others, and silently resigned myself to my fate.
I sucked at sports, was chubby, and couldn’t run a mile to save my life. I compensated for my lack of friends by retreating into fantasy, and became a prolific fiction reader (couldn’t stand that nonfiction bullshit). Eventually, books gave way to games and I just played games and lived my life on the computer.
It was a vicious cycle. The fewer friends I had, the more I retreated into my own little world. The more I retreated into my own world, the less I could identify and connect with the people around me, and the more antisocial and awkward I became, and consequently my friend count continued to drop.
At some point in middle school, it became unfathomable for me to imagine how things could possibly ever change. Not only did I not have a single clue where to start, but there was simply such an immense backlog of things wrong with me there was no way in hell I could fix it all.
I think I became suicidally depressed sometime in the 8th grade. I distinctly remember having a fairly large biology leaf compilation project due that year, and the despair at the overwhelmingness of the project was so large that I’d lie awake in bed at night and secretly wish I could kill myself so I didn’t have to deal with finishing that project. Yeah, it was kind of ridiculous.
At one point, I even got into all this random crazy conspiratorial and end-of-the world crap as a result of my desperation. There was this one random dude who thought the world was going to end in May of that year. I fervently hoped he was right.
The worst part of it is when we start to identify with our position in life, and instead of merely resigning ourselves to our place, we begin to actively embrace it. I started to see myself as just that weird kid who’d never have friends and would die alone, and started embracing the fact that I was weird as shit. I used to actively experiment with walking with weird ass contortions of my feet in middle school and became proud of being batshit crazy.
I still am, but that’s besides the point.
Thankfully, I was saved by my suicidal tendencies before I became lost forever. My freshman year of high school, there was this girl I had this massive infatuation with. Nothing special there, I’d been having these since about the 1st or 2nd grade. However, this girl actually acknowledged my existence, and we actually talked. This was, I believe, literally the first documented case in my entire life of a girl I had ever liked ever speaking to me (besides one time in the fourth grade where one girl I liked wrote me a goodbye card when I moved because our teacher forced her to. More on that on Tuesday).
And so because this girl actually spoke to me and we were actually friends, real honest-to-god friends, this was about a 10000000x improvement over any crush I had ever had in my entire life up till then, and I became obsessed over this girl. I’m not going to get into too many details here, because it is downright creepy, but essentially I never stopped thinking about her 24/7 and she was the only thing I ever thought about, ever.
Only problem is she kind of had a boyfriend. I kept hoping she’d dump that guy and go out with me, the creepy ridiculously obsessed awkward kid, but for some reason that never happened. And so that summer, I hit pretty much the lowest emotional trough of my life, and pretty much realized I would actually die alone and would never stand a chance with any girl ever. I came to the conclusion that it would probably be best to kill myself now and not suffer though an unbearable ~70 more years of being alone and outcast from society.
By some miracle of divine intervention (aka Google), however, I stumbled upon David DeAngelo, the pickup artist, and he saved my life (thanks, Eben). Here was a guy who, for the first time in my life, was telling me that it didn’t have to always be this way. I could actually become good with girls, if I took him up as my messiah and followed his holy ways.
I was skeptical, but with immediate death as the alternative, I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try and see if what he said was true. God, I love being suicidal. It is pretty much the greatest impetus to action ever, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s not an ingenious force designed by natural selection to drive us ultimately to great glory and success. Hence, I resolved to either fix this part of my life and get better at picking up girls or kill myself.
Ha. Like that happened. But seriously, the shit really worked. It was all a massive fear of rejection for me. But with my life on the line, I managed to force myself past that, and actually started engaging in conversations with girls I liked. In retrospect, I was total shit and everything I said makes me cringe now to even think about it, but my god, that was the best year of my life. Just being able to talk to girls and have them actively display the barest modicum of interest in reciprocation was such an infinite improvement over the entirety of my life to that point that I was living on clouds.
I was absolutely mindblown to realize that this shit really worked. That I really could change this one aspect of myself so deeply ingrained and everpresent in my life to that point that I had previously thought it would be there forever.
That got me thinking, and I realized that it might be possible to change every other aspect of my life that I was unsatisfied with. And then that was it. This one, simple improvement shattered almost every preconception I had ever held.
Sure, I was fat and had never run a mile in my entire life, but it didn’t have to be that way forever. I joined cross country and have to date run a marathon and climbed Kilimanjaro.
I was terrified at the prospect of public speaking and had a terrible lisp and mumbled egregiously. So I joined speech team and after sucking tremendously for half a year and feeling like total absolute shit, I ended up being one of two people at our school to qualify for nationals the following year.
Hell, I wasn’t even that good at school and had middling grades in middle school and never really applied myself. But I decided to take up every core AP class offered and even came to school an hour earlier so I could take another class, and ended up taking more AP tests than any other person and getting straight As every year, which I have to think played a part in me getting into Harvard.
I even started my own micro-finance organization, which was the first instance of anyone ever starting a student-led initiative at my school as far as I’m aware, and that ultimately laid the roots for my path towards entrepreneurship and the Thiel Fellowship.
Even my desire for travel and adventure was sparked here. One random weekend I decided I wanted to climb a mountain, and managed to convince a friend to drive 1,200 miles with me to the Appalachian Trail and back to climb the tallest point on the trail (Clingmans Dome) for no other reason than capriciousness. Was pretty much the best trip ever, and I’ve now been to every single continent (from leaving the country once to go visit China as a kid).
In short, learning to talk to girls is actually directly responsible for almost every success I’ve had in life since. That, and the high level of literacy I gained from reading so much damn fantasy as a kid.
So personal story aside, what I hope to get across here is that NOTHING IS SET IN STONE. Anything we don’t like about ourselves, or where we’re at, we can change. The fact that we are just how we are and can’t do anything about it is by and large a massive myth and an utterly harmful fabrication.
It’s true that it’s often the case that we end up how we have always been - because change is hard, and change is unlikely. Looking at 100 people today, I’d have great odds to say that the vast majority will probably be much the same way in a decade. Some, however, will be drastically different.
Change is possible. To say we’re born some way, or that we’re stuck being some way, for better or for worse, is simply blatantly wrong. It’s defeatist. Change is always possible. Some things are immensely hard to change, and most people aren’t willing to change, either because it’s difficult or because they believe they can’t - this, unfortunately, becomes a vicious cycle and perpetuates the myth that change is not possible, which in turn convinces people that they can’t change, lending credence to the myth.
Fuck that. I changed pretty much everything about myself, and it all started with one pivotal change. The worst thing is to begin to identify with who we are even if we aren’t happy with it. Eventually, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we start to even embrace that aspect of ourselves - I was just the shy nerdy kid who sat in the back row and never talked to anyone and would die alone, horribly depressed and utterly unnoticed by everyone, ever. And it’s game over from there. We start to flaunt that part of ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we shouldn’t change - people should like us for who we are, and we shouldn’t have to change ourselves for them.
Fuck that. If you’re a douchebag asshole racist neo-Nazi idiot, you should probably change that about yourself, and people shouldn’t like you for who you are, because you’re a fuckhead.
One caveat here. I’m not a batshit insane extremist believer in Lamarckism. There are obviously some things that can’t be changed. Sorry, you can’t be a mouse, because your genes dictate you will grow up to be a human. Similarly, you probably can’t be black if you were born Asian. But beyond that, yes, you can probably change pretty much everything about yourself with enough applied effort.
One area where this is particularly contentious is around mental illness and disease. A lot of people believe a host of mental illnesses are genetic, and consequently those who are predisposed to those illnesses (e.g. bipolar, paranoid schizophrenic, depression, etc.) are pretty much fucked for life and there’s nothing that they can do about that besides take lots of medication and hope the symptoms aren’t too bad.
It could very well be true that certain people are predisposed to a mental illness just like anything else - some of us are probably more predisposed than others to be fat, or to be strong, or to be intelligent, et so on. But it’s not a firm dictation of our fate.
My depression, for instance, was almost certainly circumstantial, and because of this, I suspect a ton of depressions are probably similarly circumstantial. My life sucked in every way possible, hence, I felt like shit and wanted to kill myself. When my life stopped sucking and I started leading my life like I wanted to, my depression totally vanished (it now pretty much only bothers me in the winter possibly because of SAD, and if I lived in Palo Alto or San Diego for the rest of my life I’d probably be the happiest person in the world. Thankfully until then, there’s a blue light).
Yes, we may very well be predisposed to things. But that is by far the end of the story, and humanity has triumphed and flourished on this planet for one reason: we are the most adaptable of all the creatures. This is true on the individual level as well as the societal level. Turns out you can turn perfectly normal rhesus monkeys into antisocial sadist freaks just by depriving them of a mother in infancy and isolating them from other monkeys. Our nature is designed to be dictated by our nurture.
If there’s anything we would like to see differently about ourselves or where we are - guess what? We’re not helpless. We can change it.
This is in response to Startup Edition’s prompt for this week: What is the single greatest startup hack you’ve seen?
Since I know nothing about startups or hacks or great things, I appealed to my cofounder Deven for advice. He suggested two things. One, the epic arbitrage that the Rothschild ‘bank’ engineered by strategically placing four brothers in different financial centers around the world and hiring the fastest ships to swap information before the general public could. Two, diamonds.
Since he said I’d have to read a giant book to learn about the Rothschild and I had about two days to write this post, I decided to go with diamonds.
This response interprets every aspect of the question loosely, but I think there’s still quite a valuable lesson to be found somewhere here in the rough. If you find it, let me know.
Behind the modest, lowly diamond lies pretty much the greatest marketing scheme of all time. The diamond market is a monopoly, and it has been flourishing without fail for almost a century now. In fact, I’m getting most of my information from an article published in 1982, and it’s incredible to see how little has changed in over 30 years.
Long story somewhat shorter, diamonds were pretty scarce until just about the end of the 19th century. But then a bunch of people found a shitton of diamonds in Africa, and they were like oh shit, this is totally going to deluge the market and devalue diamonds. So they decided to all band together in 1888 and form the De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. company, which promptly took over pretty much every aspect of the diamond industry ever.
In economics we learned that you can tell when a monopoly exists by how goods are advertised. If specific brands are advertised, such as “Crest toothpaste”, there’s no monopoly. But if the very good itself is advertised, such as “diamonds are forever” - you’ve got a monopoly. Not only did De Beers own every single mine in southern Africa, but they also had diamond trading companies in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland.
De Beers has been so successful that unlike pretty much every other commodity on the face of the planet, the price of diamonds has risen virtually without fail every single year since the Great Depression.
This is a chart of the price of a 1 carat D loupe clean diamond from 1960 to 2010:
How did De Beers manage this? They realized they had control not only supply of diamonds, but manufacture demand for them as well.
After World War I, the demand for diamonds had drastically dropped in America as “the result of the economy, changes in social attitudes and the promotion of competitive luxuries.” Not only had the volume of diamonds sold dropped by 50%, but the quality of the diamonds being sold had dropped by 100%. Diamonds were pretty much unheard of everywhere but America, and even there, they were far from holding the exclusive monopoly on engagement ring jewels that they do now.
To counter this, Harry Oppenheimer, the son of the founder of De Beers, recruited the advertising agency N.W. Ayer to revitalize the popularity of diamonds. N.W. Ayer promptly set to work and determined that they would romanticize the diamond and plant the notion in the minds of young men that diamonds were a gift of love, and that the bigger the diamond bought, the greater the expression of love. At the same time, women had to view diamonds as a crucial part of any relationship.
How do you change popular opinion on a mass scale? Movies.
Movie idols, the paragons of romance for the mass audience, would be given diamonds to use as their symbols of indestructible love. In addition, the agency suggested offering stories and society photographs to selected magazines and newspapers which would reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. Stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman. Fashion designers would talk on radio programs about the “trend towards diamonds” that Ayer planned to start. The Ayer plan also envisioned using the British royal family to help foster the romantic allure of diamonds. An Ayer memo said, “Since Great Britain has such an important interest in the diamond industry, the royal couple could be of tremendous assistance to this British industry by wearing diamonds rather than other jewels.” Queen Elizabeth later went on a well-publicized trip to several South African diamond mines, and she accepted a diamond from Oppenheimer.
A copywriter also came up with the catchphrase “A diamond is forever”, which rapidly ascended to become the official motto of De Beers and is now ubiquitous in the minds of people everywhere. It’s held in popular, seemingly unshakable belief that a diamond is somehow indestructible and will last forever (just like the love it symbolizes), despite the fact that a diamond can be “shattered, chipped, discolored, or incinerated to ash”. Incredible.
Diamond sales skyrocketed, but there was still some resistance to the notion of a diamond as a proper engagement ring jewel. N.W. Ayer decided to up the ante, and essentially began controlling every aspect of media being published about diamonds. They turned to television and arranged more celebrities to appear on the set with diamonds. They set up a Diamond Information Center and essentially manufactured tons of press about diamonds, and then made it seem legitimate by approving it by the DIC. They made the DIC seem like the foremost authority on diamonds, and consequently ensured that every news source came straight to the DIC when they wanted to publish anything about diamonds anywhere. Hence, they controlled not only all the diamonds in the world and pretty much all the trading centers for the diamonds, but also all the media about diamonds. Everything, fabricated by one unfathomably insidious company, pervasive and omnipresent everywhere.
Toward the end of the 1950s, N. W. Ayer reported to De Beers that twenty years of advertisements and publicity had had a pronounced effect on the American psyche. “Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age,” it said. “To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to engagements by virtually everyone.” The message had been so successfully impressed on the minds of this generation that those who could not afford to buy a diamond at the time of their marriage would “defer the purchase” rather than forgo it.
But De Beers didn’t stop there. They were dead set on taking over the world. Only problem? The rest of the world didn’t give one shit about diamonds. Well, actually, that’s no problem at all. Here’s how they took over Japan:
Until the mid-1960s, Japanese parents arranged marriages for their children through trusted intermediaries. The ceremony was consummated, according to Shinto law, by the bride and groom drinking rice wine from the same wooden bowl. There was no tradition of romance, courtship, seduction, or prenuptial love in Japan; and none that required the gift of a diamond engagement ring. Even the fact that millions of American soldiers had been assigned to military duty in Japan for a decade had not created any substantial Japanese interest in giving diamonds as a token of love.
J. Walter Thompson began its campaign by suggesting that diamonds were a visible sign of modern Western values. It created a series of color advertisements in Japanese magazines showing beautiful women displaying their diamond rings. All the women had Western facial features and wore European clothes. Moreover, the women in most of the advertisements were involved in some activity – such as bicycling, camping, yachting, ocean swimming, or mountain climbing – that defied Japanese traditions. In the background, there usually stood a Japanese man, also attired in fashionable European clothes. In addition, almost all of the automobiles, sporting equipment, and other artifacts in the picture were conspicuous foreign imports. The message was clear: diamonds represent a sharp break with the Oriental past and a sign of entry into modern life.
The campaign was remarkably successful. Until 1959, the importation of diamonds had not even been permitted by the postwar Japanese government. When the campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5 percent of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage. Japan became the second largest market, after the United States, for the sale of diamond engagement rings.
Yeah. Oh, and guess what? You can’t sell diamonds, either. Turns out the small diamonds sold in jewelry and engagement rings are practically worthless. Even large stones in jewelry are generally flawed (with the flaws covered tactfully by the setting) and can’t be remarketed as investment grade. That’s the brilliance behind it - every year, De Beers can mine more diamonds, and there is never a resale market. Almost all the diamonds ever sold remain sold and are thus removed from the marketplace, ensuring that there is a constant steady demand for the new diamonds De Beers mines.
Diamonds in jewelry are generally sold at an insane markup - if you ever try to sell a diamond, you’ll be lucky to get a third of what you paid for it back. Moreover, the ingenious marketing positioning of De Beers ensures that most people don’t even want to sell their diamonds - diamonds are forever, and are a symbol of everlasting love to be kept and cherished forever. To sell a diamond would be like disregarding that love and pawning it. You wouldn’t want to do that, would you?
In closing, it’s almost shocking how manipulable trends and people are. I suppose we really do just take our cues from everyone around us, and everyone around us just takes their cues from the people who tell us which cues we should be taking. Remember when we all used to wear hats?
It sucks to feel so manipulated. Some part of me hopes future startups won’t take a lesson from this and figure out how to entirely manufacture enormous demand for an entirely arbitrary and unnecessary good entirely from scratch, and then control both demand and supply singlehandedly for almost a century. Well, unless I’m doing that. Then it’d be fucking awesome.
I tip my [nonexistent] hat to diamonds, but I will never buy one. It’s cheaper to remain single and not have kids and die alone anyway. Thanks a lot for ruining my life, Startup Edition.
I think there are a few takeaways to be learnt from this, for both startups and anyone who lives in a civilized society. We can take very real heed that it is indeed possible to entirely engineer a new desire, demand, thought, and belief so well that it seems an integral part of our culture and society. For people at large, I hope this makes us much more aware of why we believe the things we believe. I hope it makes us decide to critically examine what we believe, and decide for ourselves whether or not it is right we hold that belief or if we should discard it, and it was wrongly given to us (as seen here, in the case with diamonds).
For startups…while this seems like a grand undertaking and impossible to do with the bootstrapped resources of a tiny fledging company, it’s important to realize that times have changed, and it’s actually easier than ever to manipulate the media.
My great hope is that everyone uses this powerful knowledge for good, and doesn’t just con the whole world into buying arbitrarily valued diamonds, but I suppose take it for what it is.
However, some part of me is deeply unsettled that De Beers was so grossly, enormously successful in this media manipulation undertaking, and I’m quite upset that it’s the case, though I suppose it’s likely the case for pretty much every ‘fashion’ and ‘trend’, so perhaps it’s not that bad after all, and is the only way we come to value anything. I’ve always had a problem with wearing suits and ties, for instance. Why the hell do we do it? Why do we find this to be the proper attire in the business world, as opposed to a monk’s robes or whatever the hell is most comfortable and functional for whatever situation? I have a big problem with arbitrary and ‘customary, traditional’ preferences superceding pure, objective functionality. But anyway.
So yes, while it may not be ‘right’ that it is this way, it is very possible that just as was the case with diamonds and De Beers, a startup can be fully capable of utilizing media manipulation to great effect and success. You just have to make people believe they’re hearing it from someone else - someone that they trust and look up to. Just…try to do it with something that actually has real value, please :).
This past week I learned that I have some incredible readers on this blog. No idea why you guys read this piece of shit. But I’m glad you do. Thanks.
As somewhat promised, here’s a followup post to my Why Do You Live? post on Monday, featuring some of the fantastic responses from incredible readers.
First up, the fucking awesome Michelle Lara Lin, who I’m actually amazed I haven’t met yet. How does everyone not know this ridiculously cool person already?
I can’t admit I’m not biased in favoring this response because she’s an absurdist too and runs a blog called The Stranger, because I am. But notwithstanding, she wrote a amazing post below interspersed with amazing pieces of artwork, so. Read it.
I’ve always loved reading your blog entries, but this Absurdist one was a delightful surprise. Camus is my favorite author. He turned my life around and gave me the strength to live and do all the things that I’d be afraid to do otherwise. So I am really excited to send you this email.
I wrote a long blog post called I’m scared of dying a long time ago. It was about overcoming the fear of death. It’s a bit long, and I know you must be very busy. So in case you don’t have the time to read it, I’ve prepared the TL;DR version:
I would think about death. I would be frightened over the thought that one day, my life would end… Everything that I worked for, everything that I built up would be gone. My life would be consummated without me, before my eyes, and ultimately, there would be nothing. Everything would disintegrate into this nothingness. That empty feeling, that nothingness, haunted me with sleepless nights and swollen eye bags. My parents were religious, and they offered it to me as a solace. My heart ached for a God. But I could never believe.
I love life.
And I do not believe that my life serves a purpose.
I do not believe that my life has any meaning.
What do I live for? Why do I live?
I suppose I live to create and to fix things.
Creating: Nietzsche once wrote that we have art in order not to die of life. I think that is very true. Because in those moments when life becomes unbearable, you channel everything that is inconceivable, you channel all that emotional excess into art. I don’t just mean conventional art (painting, sculptures… etc)– but even startups count too. Quotesome is the current “work of art” that I’m building.
Fixing things: I also see all these flaws with the world and I feel extremely itchy. I want to fix things. I can’t stand that there are so many bad quote websites on the internet. I am outraged that women are still a flagrant minority in the tech world. I’m sick of double standards. I’m disappointed stigma surrounding mental illness. I can’t sit around and accept things for the way they are. I am never content with the status quo. I really want to change the world.
Gaze your eyes upon Quotle, the adorable Quotesome Turtle. (I suspect that secretly everything Michelle said is bullshit and the real reason she gets up every day is to feed and cuddle with Quotle.)
Then go check out Quotesome, cause it’s super cool.
Below is another fantastic response by Phillip Herndon, who wrote his own blog post in reply:
It’s not a direct answer, but I play around with the question a bit. (It’s a tough question!)
I definitely recommend checking out Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s stark, but optimistic in a way existentialism usually isn’t.
I’ve been meaning to read MSM forever - this convinced me to up the priority on that. We pushed a bit back and forth here, and this is was my response:
I suppose the deeper question for me is always - why? In the absence of objective meaning, what justifies any subjective meaning we choose to have at any moment? For instance - why choose to be a teacher, or a student? It’s generally a recursive question for me - whatever my answer is, I’ll ask ‘why’ to that again. Ultimately, it seems we need to take something on its own merit as an axiom, and I’ve never discovered a satisfying enough axiom to base the meaning of my life on at any given moment.
And this was his great response to that:
Gotta push back on your why questions, though. If we start by agreeing that the universe is inherently absurd, it’s kinda odd to hold ourselves to a different standard. Looking for moral axioms in an absurd world is a tough position to put yourself in!
You can look and see that generally people have a drive for meaning, as we have other drives. There’s also a good argument, I think, that that meaning is not, cannot be, objective.
Asking why we choose one meaning rather than another is fruitless, though. As you point you we can always just ask why again. And any justification we come up with is likely to be post hoc.
We can go pretty deep with the whys, because humans are really good at dreaming up justifications and reasoning, but I don’t think that means that all these things led to a decision. There’s a lot of good work on social intuitionism, particularly some of Jon Haidt’s stuff, that explores this a bit better than i could
I think that Frankl and Haidt might agree (going out on a limb here) that when picking a meaning in the moment the important thing is that it fits with your personal narrative and it satisfies your drive for meaning, not that it’s an airtight axiom. After all, it can change as your experience with the world changes.
For some reason, that last bit about picking a meaning in the moment and having it fit with our personal narrative struck me particularly strongly, and actually persuaded me over to his line of thought and now I’m going to try to find that meaning that fits with my personal narrative right now. Thanks, man!
And then we’ve got a somewhat lighter answer (minus the immortality/making worlds bit) from my epic friend Jon Davis:
Yo Ben, responding to your blog post.
Most of my life goals, essentially the end game is to explore/create endlessly and get infinite enjoyment out of life.
Pre-living forever goals:
Find 5-6 close friends with similar goals and tackle life (or quick attack, aw yeah pokemon reference)
Learn 5-6 languages or effectively learn them all through technology.
Make the world actively better is very significant ways.
and the big one, oh boy.
After living forever goals:
Master various strategy games, hopefully they involve multi-player VC worlds.
Create my own landscape, whether it be planets or virtual reality.
Adjust to do whatever you want, since you know, you live forever.
I guess the snippit would be to explore/create without end in every sense of those words. Or maybe just live forever and figure out the rest later :P
I love the bit about finding 5-6 close friends and tackling life together. Recalled to mind my reading about making our own tribes in Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. Major kudos for that, and I’d love to make my own tribe.
Incidentally, Jon’s looking for sweet peeps for his own hunting party of people, so if any of you guys seem to mesh unusually well with him, you should totally ping him up. He’s a top 50 tournament poker player and pretty much kicks ass at life.
And to end since this is way long, here’s an answer from France:
I have read your post with great interest..
I thought I could have something to share.
When I was about 16 years old I faced an existential crisis of sorts. I remember it very well. The night just before one of the final tests french pupils (sorry for my mediocre english, by the way) take at the end of highschool, I stayed awake several hours processing different things that had happened to me in the previous months, and wondered what was it all about… I had frequently wondered about “the meaning of life” before, but on that night I felt an urgent need to find a decent answer to that question.
At about 4 AM I decided it would be a good idea to fall asleep, and settled for a vague answer that let me unsatisfied: just try to leave to your children something “better” than what your parents left you, whatever the meaning of “better” may be. That was a somewhat darwinian, paternalistic idea.
In fact I simply wanted to “make the world better” though I disliked the apparent naiveness of that idea; doing it for my future children, and not for every future human being, sounded less vague. At times, I tried, without much hope to succeed to find a way to somehow quantify or rationalize things like welfare or happiness, because you can improve only what you can measure. I was bumping my head against a wall, and I knew it, but I wanted to give it a try.
But if life has no meaning, then why would your children care about what you leave to them? This reminds me of a post from Sergey Brin on Google +:
No place in the world has made me consider my place in the universe like Jellyfish Lake. Millions of creatures all drifting seemingly aimlessly, searching for light, for the energy to spawn so generations of their offspring may do the same years later. I take a small breath, sink toward the bottom, watching them in wonder and think are we really so different?
Of course nothing has any meaning at all, “meaning” is something our brain constructs.
With the theory of evolution and the big bang theory, any inquiry about the meaning of life will inevitably drift to the meaning of the universe and of the laws of physics. Why is there an universe? That’s the super-size version of the “What’s the meaning of life” question.
Perhaps this quest for objective meaning shows a part of us that likes to be told what to do, to follow a plan of action, to obey to an imperative.
Perhaps conscious beings are precisely what gives a (subjective) meaning to the universe, or different subjective meanings?
Ultimately there is no finality, nothing has any end. You can ace a test because it is built to be completed with respect to some metric - you can answer every question within time limits - but you will have “completed” it from only one point of view - you answered right every questions in time. Under another metric (say the number of correct answers divided by the amount of energy your brain consumed in the process, or just the time it took you to achieve your score) you can not say you’ve “completed” anything.
This reminds me of one of my favourite tweets from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:
“As the area covered by knowledge expands, so does the perimeter of ignorance.”
Everything we do just calls for doing more.
I’ve decided that I would be living mostly for experiences - entrepreneurship, creations of all sorts, leisures, travels. I want to have a great time.
I’m 22 now, and I hope I will be able to look back, in old age, and see my life as a story of continuous moral and intellectual improvement. Today the Internet allows one to witness the immensity of the world, in terms of both material and intellectual content. I try to fill my life with variety - variety of varieties: places, people, activities…
And if I am lucky enough to make a large sum of money in the process,I would spend it to do something really cool, like building a libertarian settlement in Antarctic, or curing death.
Here is a quote I love from Francis Scott Fitzgerald:
“One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Huge fan of that post by Sergey Brin - major props for pointing that out. I want to go to Jellyfish Lake now.
Thanks y'all for the sweet responses.
Addendum: After publishing this, I woke up to find another email in my inbox, professing to be the counter to the ‘positive’ responses above. It’s great to see a response from a somewhat jaded man who’s already lived a good portion of life, in contrast with most of the perspectives published above.
Here’s the honest albeit dark counter to the positive responses you mention in ‘Why People Live’. As I can’t be the only one with this mindset and/or experiences… please, if it’ll help anyone, use it as you see fit.
Answering your ‘Why?’
Because that’s what you do.
I suspect your line of ‘because we are alive now, and if we try not to think about it too hard, it’s easier to just go along with the motions’ nails it for most.
Even allowing for all the hopes and aspirations we nurture, it’s a rut along which we glide or stumble for much of the time we’re here when things aren’t going to plan and we’re not genuinely enjoying things.
Personally, as an overweight old man with glasses and no hair (currently working on a(nother) not-yet-launched startup - which this time I genuinely hope I’ll stick with and/or not get sideswiped by divorce/ill-health or other external factors largely not of my doing and beyond my control), aware of a marked decline in physical and mental ability I’m trying to take care of some stuff I should have done years back but didn’t and finally get myself onto a productive even course in which I earn enough to live sensibly and enjoy myself whilst being here to help family and appropriate others.
As a backstop, I find it’s easier and less guilt-inducing than taking an early exit by suicide.
The backstory is simple…
In mid-99 a 19-year marriage imploded when my then-wife left unexpectedly and without notice. Having heartily thrown myself into and enjoyed ‘being a family’, the split removed nearly all perspective and meaning from my life… so much so that I totally failed to handle being sole parent to three teen kids and within months found myself briefly detained in a locked-door psych ward, taken there by police to prevent self-harm.
I shortly thereafter slotted into another relationship (it was welcoming to be wanted again), albeit one in which genuine mutual love wasn’t enough to overcome often fiery incompatibility and after a turbulent 6-7 years it withered when the lady left the uk (that’s where I’m based and we were living) to return to her native US to put her son through high school.
Because of a shortage of money and other things we each had to deal with in our respective families, plans to spend intermittent periods together were never actioned and we grew progressively distant. The formal end came in late 09 when I entirely accidentally was invited into a relationship with an attractive and lively lady 20 years younger than me. And again, it’s not been smooth - despite great similarity in many areas, specific differences on one issue (her now-age-7 son) have been very problematic.
Amid all this, in recent years I’ve become jaded and frustrated through declining health (post-burnout chronic fatigue) which leaves me notably less-able to successfully pursue entrepreneurial ventures. The net effect is of adding to the frustrations of a life not-well-lived.
If I could go back and change things I would, but I can’t and so I live with what I have and have done, trying to do what I still can to enrich (metaphorically and financially) the lives of my partner and family.
I’ve reached a point at which I now know that I’ll never do some of the stuff I wanted to and perhaps genuinely still want to… even where desire remains the resolve has weakened. I’d be kidding myself if I genuinely thought I could meaningfully make the world better.
So yeah, I’m still working at getting things right even though I suspect I may not. I’m ‘driven’ (ha!) by a desire/need to serve those close to me and try to do something genuinely worthwhile which helps make the world a little better than had I simply sat back and thought ‘fuck it!’.
And so, in my slightly-zen dotage I try to satisfy myself with ‘do what you can with what you have to build this op right, earn enough to take care of those close to you’, try to use whatever influence you have wisely to help foster wisdom and compassion in others, and enjoy the simple things.
You asked, I answered.
Be happy, live well - it’s a waste of a life not to.
I’d love to hear if this does ‘help’ or resonate with someone. Perhaps likeminded people can connect.
Further addendum: Apparently the responder above is a happy person after all! Good to hear.
A little postscript (if that’s the right word)…
Hastily written and not reviewed or edited, as
as written it might convey a wrong (and certainly incomplete) impression.
Overall, despite the obvious at-times downs expressed therein, I’m happy. I don’t curse the sunrises and, in living a simple life, am quietly satisfied by being given more time here.
Ok, so an ongoing inability to sort my commercial matters leaves me short of the necessary money to cover food/essential expenses and a few frills, and frustratingly lowers my self-esteem. But things could be one helluva lot worse - and of course are for many many others.
Age and ‘can’t do that currently/any more’ seems to bring other compensations, not the least of which is inner reflection as I tend to look back (and fondly remember) rather than forward (and dream/plan great moves). There’s real enjoyment therein.
Sometimes I wish I was 25-35, and other times am glad I’m not. Perhaps obviously, ‘life is what it is’ and that’s the how I live it, often sanguine although sometimes unreasonably melancholy.
And that’s perhaps my one-liner point… it’s not all good and it is ok to feel crap about stuff. Take the good with the bad and flow - enjoy the ups and try not to get to flattened by the downs. The time we get here isn’t (or shouldn’t) read like a triumph-over-adversity self-help tome.
As someone else once said… ‘you gotta bleed a little while you sing, or the words don’t mean a thing’.
As someone who subscribes to absurdism, this is something that has always fascinated me. This isn’t so much an essay so much as just a question: what do you live for? Why do you live? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and you can email me at yu (at) benyu (dot) org. I may publish some responses anonymously if there is enough interest.
My thoughts on the matter can essentially be summed up as I see objective meaning in life to be highly improbable. If evolution is true, as it overwhelmingly seems it is, the long path to our creation was sparked without intention.
Something happened, the universe came to be, some dust gathered together and formed the sun and the planets, and somewhere on earth, somehow, abiogenesis occurred, and a couple billion years later eukaryotes came about, and another billion years after that fish and stuff emerged, and then eventually apes had lots of sex and we emerged as the result.
No reason behind it. So, taking that as a starting point, why do we choose to live? What is the end that makes the means (life and everything that comes with it) worthwhile?
Life is a hard thing. It’s a lot of work, and at the end of it, we die*. After we die, there is presumably nothing, and so at face value there seems to be little difference in the end whether we die today or a thousand years from now, and also what we accomplish in that time.
Is it for the legacy we leave behind? The children that continue our story? But what matter is it to us now, now that we’re dead and everything is beyond irrelevant? And what happens after humans are all gone from this earth? What is the point then?
Is it hope? Hope for humanity’s future, hope for the truth of meaning, hope for an afterlife, hope that our lives are not in vain after all?
Is it sheer curiosity? The desire to see what comes next in humanity’s ever-changing course?
Is it hedonistic desire? Our desire to maximize our happiness and pleasure? Evolution has gifted us emotions in the hard battle against extinction, and perhaps they are working as well now as ever.
Is it fear of death?
Or is it simply because we are alive now, and if we try not to think about it too hard, it’s easier to just go along with the motions of life in the absence of any great impediment?
Something else? Please let me know; I’d love to hear it.
*Perhaps a tad ironic that this post comes immediately after a post on immortality, but hey, if we want to live forever, it’d probably be good to figure out why :).
I didn’t write this one, but I think it’s extremely imperative the message here gets spread as far as possible. This was written by Nick Bostrom. I’ve posted my commentary at the bottom so as to not detract from the reading experience.
And so, without further ado, you can read this masterpiece here, or below:
Once upon a time, the planet was tyrannized by a giant dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and it was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish-green slime. It demanded from humankind a blood-curdling tribute: to satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where the dragon-tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon would devour these unfortunate souls upon arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up in the mountain where they would wither away for months or years before eventually being consumed.
The misery inflicted by the dragon-tyrant was incalculable. In addition to the ten thousand who were gruesomely slaughtered each day, there were the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, and friends that were left behind to grieve the loss of their departed loved ones.
Some people tried to fight the dragon, but whether they were brave or foolish was difficult to say. Priests and magicians called down curses, to no avail. Warriors, armed with roaring courage and the best weapons the smiths could produce, attacked it, but were incinerated by its fire before coming close enough to strike. Chemists concocted toxic brews and tricked the dragon into swallowing them, but the only apparent effect was to further stimulate its appetite. The dragon’s claws, jaws, and fire were so effective, its scaly armor so impregnable, and its whole nature so robust, as to make it invincible to any human assault.
Seeing that defeating the tyrant was impossible, humans had no choice but to obey its commands and pay the grisly tribute. The fatalities selected were always elders. Although senior people were as vigorous and healthy as the young, and sometimes wiser, the thinking was that they had at least already enjoyed a few decades of life. The wealthy might gain a brief reprieve by bribing the press gangs that came to fetch them; but, by constitutional law, nobody, not even the king himself, could put off their turn indefinitely.
Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.
For many centuries this desperate state of affairs continued. Nobody kept count any longer of the cumulative death toll, nor of the number of tears shed by the bereft. Expectations had gradually adjusted and the dragon-tyrant had become a fact of life. In view of the evident futility of resistance, attempts to kill the dragon had ceased. Instead, efforts now focused on placating it. While the dragon would occasionally raid the cities, it was found that the punctual delivery to the mountain of its quota of life reduced the frequency of these incursions.
Knowing that their turn to become dragon-fodder was always impending, people began having children earlier and more often. It was not uncommon for a girl to be pregnant by her sixteenth birthday. Couples often spawned a dozen children. The human population was thus kept from shrinking, and the dragon was kept from going hungry.
Over the course of these centuries, the dragon, being well fed, slowly but steadily grew bigger. It had become almost as large as the mountain on which it lived. And its appetite had increased proportionately. Ten thousand human bodies were no longer enough to fill its belly. It now demanded eighty thousand, to be delivered to the foot of the mountain every evening at the onset of dark.
What occupied the king’s mind more than the deaths and the dragon itself was the logistics of collecting and transporting so many people to the mountain every day. This was not an easy task.
To facilitate the process, the king had a railway track constructed: two straight lines of glistening steel leading up to the dragon’s abode. Every twenty minutes, a train would arrive at the mountain terminal crammed with people, and would return empty. On moonlit nights, the passengers traveling on this train, if there had been windows for them to stick their heads out of, would have been able to see in front of them the double silhouette of the dragon and the mountain, and two glowing red eyes, like the beams from a pair of giant lighthouses, pointing the way to annihilation.
Servants were employed by the king in large numbers to administer the tribute. There were registrars who kept track of whose turn it was to be sent. There were people-collectors who would be dispatched in special carts to fetch the designated people. Often traveling at breakneck speed, they would rush their cargo either to a railway station or directly to the mountain. There were clerks who administered the pensions paid to the decimated families who were no longer able to support themselves. There were comforters who would travel with the doomed on their way to the dragon, trying to ease their anguish with spirits and drugs.
There was, moreover, a cadre of dragonologists who studied how these logistic processes could be made more efficient. Some dragonologists also conducted studies of the dragon’s physiology and behavior, and collected samples – its shed scales, the slime that drooled from its jaws, its lost teeth, and its excrements, which were specked with fragments of human bone. All these items were painstakingly annotated and archived. The more the beast was understood, the more the general perception of its invincibility was confirmed. Its black scales, in particular, were harder than any material known to man, and there seemed no way to make as much as a scratch in its armor.
To finance all these activities, the king levied heavy taxes on his people. Dragon-related expenditures, already accounting for one seventh of the economy, were growing even faster than the dragon itself.
Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while, somebody gets a good idea. Others copy the idea, adding to it their own improvements. Over time, many wondrous tools and systems are developed. Some of these devices – calculators, thermometers, microscopes, and the glass vials that the chemists use to boil and distil liquids – serve to make it easier to generate and try out new ideas, including ideas that expedite the process of idea-generation.
Thus the great wheel of invention, which had turned at an almost imperceptibly slow pace in the older ages, gradually began to accelerate.
Sages predicted that a day would come when technology would enable humans to fly and do many other astonishing things. One of the sages, who was held in high esteem by some of the other sages but whose eccentric manners had made him a social outcast and recluse, went so far as to predict that technology would eventually make it possible to build a contraption that could kill the dragon-tyrant.
The king’s scholars, however, dismissed these ideas. They said that humans were far too heavy to fly and in any case lacked feathers. And as for the impossible notion that the dragon-tyrant could be killed, history books recounted hundreds of attempts to do just that, not one of which had been successful. “We all know that this man had some irresponsible ideas,” a scholar of letters later wrote in his obituary of the reclusive sage who had by then been sent off to be devoured by the beast whose demise he had foretold, “but his writings were quite entertaining and perhaps we should be grateful to the dragon for making possible the interesting genre of dragon-bashing literature which reveals so much about the culture of angst!”
Meanwhile, the wheel of invention kept turning. Mere decades later, humans did fly and accomplished many other astonishing things.
A few iconoclastic dragonologists began arguing for a new attack on the dragon-tyrant. Killing the dragon would not be easy, they said, but if some material could be invented that was harder than the dragon’s armor, and if this material could be fashioned into some kind of projectile, then maybe the feat would be possible. At first, the iconoclasts’ ideas were rejected by their dragonologist peers on grounds that no known material was harder than dragon scales. But after working on the problem for many years, one of the iconoclasts succeeded in demonstrating that a dragon scale could be pierced by an object made of a certain composite material. Many dragonologists who had previously been skeptical now joined the iconoclasts. Engineers calculated that a huge projectile could be made of this material and launched with sufficient force to penetrate the dragon’s armor. However, the manufacture of the needed quantity of the composite material would be expensive.
A group of several eminent engineers and dragonologists sent a petition to the king asking for funding to build the anti-dragon projectile. At time when the petition was sent, the king was preoccupied with leading his army into war against a tiger. The tiger had killed a farmer and subsequently disappeared into the jungle. There was widespread fear in the countryside that the tiger might come out and strike again. The king had the jungle surrounded and ordered his troops to begin slashing their way through it. At the conclusion of the campaign, the king could announce that all 163 tigers in the jungle, including presumably the murderous one, had been hunted down and killed. During the tumult of the war, however, the petition had been lost or forgotten.
The petitioners therefore sent another appeal. This time they received a reply from one of the king’s secretaries saying that the king would consider their request after he was done reviewing the annual dragon-administration budget. This year’s budget was the largest to date and included funding for a new railway track to the mountain. A second track was deemed necessary, as the original track could no longer support the increasing traffic. (The tribute demanded by the dragon-tyrant had increased to one hundred thousand human beings, to be delivered to the foot of the mountain every evening at the onset of dark.) When the budget was finally approved, however, reports were coming from a remote part of the country that a village was suffering from a rattlesnake infestation. The king had to leave urgently to mobilize his army and ride off to defeat this new threat. The anti-dragonists’ appeal was filed away in a dusty cabinet in the castle basement.
The anti-dragonists met again to decide what was to be done. The debate was animated and continued long into the night. It was almost daybreak when they finally resolved to take the matter to the people. Over the following weeks, they traveled around the country, gave public lectures, and explained their proposal to anyone who would listen. At first, people were skeptical. They had been taught in school that the dragon-tyrant was invincible and that the sacrifices it demanded had to be accepted as a fact of life. Yet when they learnt about the new composite material and about the designs for the projectile, many became intrigued. In increasing numbers, citizens flocked to the anti-dragonist lectures. Activists started organizing public rallies in support of the proposal.
When the king read about these meetings in the newspaper, he summoned his advisors and asked them what they thought about it. They informed him about the petitions that had been sent but told him that the anti-dragonists were troublemakers whose teachings were causing public unrest. It was much better for the social order, they said, that the people accepted the inevitability of the dragon-tyrant tribute. The dragon-administration provided many jobs that would be lost if the dragon was slaughtered. There was no known social good coming from the conquest of the dragon. In any case, the king’s coffers were currently nearly empty after the two military campaigns and the funding set aside for the second railway line. The king, who was at the time enjoying great popularity for having vanquished the rattlesnake infestation, listened to his advisors’ arguments but worried that he might lose some of his popular support if was seen to ignore the anti-dragonist petition. He therefore decided to hold an open hearing. Leading dragonologists, ministers of the state, and interested members of the public were invited to attend.
The meeting took place on the darkest day of the year, just before the Christmas holidays, in the largest hall of the royal castle. The hall was packed to the last seat and people were crowding in the aisles. The mood was charged with an earnest intensity normally reserved for pivotal wartime sessions.
After the king had welcomed everyone, he gave the floor to the leading scientist behind the anti-dragonist proposal, a woman with a serious, almost stern expression on her face. She proceeded to explain in clear language how the proposed device would work and how the requisite amount of the composite material could be manufactured. Given the requested amount of funding, it should be possible to complete the work in fifteen to twenty years. With an even greater amount of funding, it might be possible to do it in as little as twelve years. However, there could be no absolute guarantee that it would work. The crowd followed her presentation intently.
Next to speak was the king’s chief advisor for morality, a man with a booming voice that easily filled the auditorium:
“Let us grant that this woman is correct about the science and that the project is technologically possible, although I don’t think that has actually been proven. Now she desires that we get rid of the dragon. Presumably, she thinks she’s got the right not to be chewed up by the dragon. How willful and presumptuous. The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not. Getting rid of the dragon, which might seem like such a convenient thing to do, would undermine our human dignity. The preoccupation with killing the dragon will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying alive. It is debasing, yes debasing, for a person to want to continue his or her mediocre life for as long as possible without worrying about some of the higher questions about what life is to be used for. But I tell you, the nature of the dragon is to eat humans, and our own species-specified nature is truly and nobly fulfilled only by getting eaten by it…”
The audience listened respectfully to this highly decorated speaker. The phrases were so eloquent that it was hard to resist the feeling that some deep thoughts must lurk behind them, although nobody could quite grasp what they were. Surely, words coming from such a distinguished appointee of the king must have profound substance.
The speaker next in line was a spiritual sage who was widely respected for his kindness and gentleness as well as for his devotion. As he strode to the podium, a small boy yelled out from the audience: “The dragon is bad!”
The boy’s parents turned bright red and began hushing and scolding the child. But the sage said, “Let the boy speak. He is probably wiser than an old fool like me.”
At first, the boy was too scared and confused to move. But when he saw the genuinely friendly smile on the sage’s face and the outreached hand, he obediently took it and followed the sage up to the podium. “Now, there’s a brave little man,” said the sage. “Are you afraid of the dragon?“
“I want my granny back,” said the boy.
“Did the dragon take your granny away?”
“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”
At this point the child was crying so hard that the sage had to return him to his parents.
There were several other speakers that evening, but the child’s simple testimony had punctured the rhetorical balloon that the king’s ministers had tried to inflate. The people were backing the anti-dragonists, and by the end of the evening even the king had come to recognize the reason and the humanity of their cause. In his closing statement, he simply said: “Let’s do it!”
As the news spread, celebrations erupted in the streets. Those who had been campaigning for the anti-dragonists toasted each other and drank to the future of humanity.
The next morning, a billion people woke up and realized that their turn to be sent to the dragon would come before the projectile would be completed. A tipping point was reached. Whereas before, active support for the anti-dragonist cause had been limited to a small group of visionaries, it now became the number one priority and concern on everybody’s mind. The abstract notion of “the general will” took on an almost tangible intensity and concreteness. Mass rallies raised money for the projectile project and urged the king to increase the level of state support. The king responded to these appeals. In his New Year address, he announced that he would pass an extra appropriations bill to support the project at a high level of funding; additionally, he would sell off his summer castle and some of his land and make a large personal donation. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of freeing the world from the ancient scourge of the dragon-tyrant.”
Thus started a great technological race against time. The concept of an anti-dragon projectile was simple, but to make it a reality required solutions to a thousand smaller technical problems, each of which required dozens of time-consuming steps and missteps. Test-missiles were fired but fell dead to the ground or flew off in the wrong direction. In one tragic accident, a wayward missile landed on a hospital and killed several hundred patients and staff. But there was now a real seriousness of purpose, and the tests continued even as the corpses were being dug out from the debris.
Despite almost unlimited funding and round-the-clock work by the technicians, the king’s deadline could not be met. The decade concluded and the dragon was still alive and well. But the effort was getting closer. A prototype missile had been successfully test fired. Production of the core, made of the expensive composite material, was on schedule for its completion to coincide with the finishing of the fully tested and debugged missile shell into which it was to be loaded. The launch date was set to the following year’s New Year’s Eve, exactly twelve years after the project’s official inauguration. The best-selling Christmas gift that year was a calendar that counted down the days to time zero, the proceeds going to the projectile project.
The king had undergone a personal transformation from his earlier frivolous and thoughtless self. He now spent as much time as he could in the laboratories and the manufacturing plants, encouraging the workers and praising their toil. Sometimes he would bring a sleeping bag and spend the night on a noisy machine floor. He even studied and tried to understand the technical aspects of their work. Yet he confined himself to giving moral support and refrained from meddling in technical and managerial matters.
Seven days before New Year, the woman who had made the case for the project almost twelve years earlier, and was now its chief executive, came to the royal castle and requested an urgent audience with the king. When the king got her note, he excused himself to the foreign dignitaries whom he was reluctantly entertaining at the annual Christmas dinner and hurried off to the private room where the scientist was waiting. As always of late, she looked pale and worn from her long working hours. This evening, however, the king also thought he could detect a ray of relief and satisfaction in her eyes.
She told him that the missile had been deployed, the core had been loaded, everything had been triple-checked, they were ready to launch, and would the king give his final go-ahead. The king sank down in an armchair and closed his eyes. He was thinking hard. By launching the projectile tonight, one week early, seven hundred thousand people would be saved. Yet if something went wrong, if it missed its target and hit the mountain instead, it would be a disaster. A new core would have to be constructed from scratch and the project would be set back by some four years. He sat there, silently, for almost an hour. Just as the scientist had become convinced that he had fallen asleep, he opened his eyes and said in a firm voice: “No. I want you to go right back to the lab. I want you to check and then re-check everything again.” The scientist could not help a sigh escaping her; but she nodded and left.
The last day of the year was cold and overcast, but there was no wind, which meant good launch conditions. The sun was setting. Technicians were scuttling around making the final adjustments and giving everything one last check. The king and his closest advisors were observing from a platform close to the launch pad. Further away, behind a fence, large numbers of the public had assembled to witness the great event. A large clock was showing the countdown: fifty minutes to go.
An advisor tapped the king on the shoulder and drew his attention to the fence. There was some tumult. Somebody had apparently jumped the fence and was running towards the platform where the king sat. Security quickly caught up with him. He was handcuffed and taken away. The king turned his attention back to the launch pad, and to the mountain in the background. In front of it, he could see the dark slumped profile of the dragon. It was eating.
Some twenty minutes later, the king was surprised to see the handcuffed man reappearing a short distance from the platform. His nose was bleeding and he was accompanied by two security guards. The man appeared to be in frenzied state. When he spotted the king, he began shouting at the top of his lungs: “The last train! The last train! Stop the last train!”
“Who is this young man?” said the king. “His face seems familiar, but I cannot quite place him. What does he want? Let him come up.”
The young man was a junior clerk in the ministry of transportation, and the reason for his frenzy was that he had discovered that his father was on the last train to the mountain. The king had ordered the train traffic to continue, fearing that any disruption might cause the dragon to stir and leave the open field in front of the mountain where it now spent most of its time. The young man begged the king to issue a recall-order for the last train, which was due to arrive at the mountain terminal five minutes before time zero.
“I cannot do it,” said the king, “I cannot take the risk.”
“But the trains frequently run five minutes late. The dragon won’t notice! Please!”
The young man was kneeling before the king, imploring him to save his father’s life and the lives of the other thousand passengers onboard that last train.
The king looked down at the pleading, bloodied face of the young man. But he bit his lip, and shook his head. The young man continued to wail even as the guards carried him off the platform: “Please! Stop the last train! Please!”
The king stood silent and motionless, until, after while, the wailing suddenly ceased. The king looked up and glanced over at the countdown clock: five minutes remaining.
Four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes.
The last technician left the launch pad.
30 seconds. 20 seconds. Ten, nine, eight…
As a ball of fire enveloped the launch pad and the missile shot out, the spectators instinctively rose to the tips of their toes, and all eyes fixated at the front end of the white flame from the rocket’s afterburners heading towards the distant mountain. The masses, the king, the low and the high, the young and the old, it was as if at this moment they shared a single awareness, a single conscious experience: that white flame, shooting into the dark, embodying the human spirit, its fear and its hope… striking at the heart of evil. The silhouette on the horizon tumbled, and fell. Thousand voices of pure joy rose from the assembled masses, joined seconds later by a deafening drawn-out thud from the collapsing monster as if the Earth itself was drawing a sigh of relief. After centuries of oppression, humanity at last was free from the cruel tyranny of the dragon.
The joy cry resolved into a jubilating chant: “Long live the king! Long live us all!” The king’s advisors, like everybody that night, were as happy as children; they embraced each other and congratulated the king: “We did it! We did it!”
But the king answered in a broken voice: “Yes, we did it, we killed the dragon today. But damn, why did we start so late? This could have been done five, maybe ten years ago! Millions of people wouldn’t have had to die.”
The king stepped off the platform and walked up to the young man in handcuffs, who was sitting on the ground. There he fell down on his knees. “Forgive me! Oh my God, please forgive me!”
The rain started falling, in large, heavy drops, turning the ground into mud, drenching the king’s purple robes, and dissolving the blood on the young man’s face. “I am so very sorry about your father,” said the king.
“It’s not your fault,” replied the young man. “Do you remember twelve years ago in the castle? That crying little boy who wanted you to bring back his grandmother – that was me. I didn’t realize then that you couldn’t possibly do what I asked for. Today I wanted you to save my father. Yet it was impossible to do that now, without jeopardizing the launch. But you have saved my life, and my mother and my sister. How can we ever thank you enough for that?”
“Listen to them,” said the king, gesturing towards the crowds. “They are cheering me for what happened tonight. But the hero is you. You cried out. You rallied us against evil.” The king signaled a guard to come and unlock the handcuffs. “Now, go to your mother and sister. You and your family shall always be welcome at the court, and anything you wish for – if it be within my power – shall be granted.”
The young man left, and the royal entourage, huddling in the downpour, accumulated around their monarch who was still kneeling in the mud. Amongst the fancy couture, which was being increasingly ruined by the rain, a bunch of powdered faces expressed a superposition of joy, relief, and discombobulation. So much had changed in the last hour: the right to an open future had been regained, a primordial fear had been abolished, and many a long-held assumption had been overturned. Unsure now about what was required of them in this unfamiliar situation, they stood there tentatively, as if probing whether the ground would still hold, exchanging glances, and waiting for some kind of indication.
Finally, the king rose, wiping his hands on the sides of his pants.
“Your majesty, what do we do now?” ventured the most senior courtier.
“My dear friends,” said the king, “we have come a long way… yet our journey has only just begun. Our species is young on this planet. Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do better than we have done in the past. We have time now – time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, time for the slow process of building a better world, and time to get settled in it. Tonight, let all the bells in the kingdom ring until midnight, in remembrance of our dead forbears, and then after midnight let us celebrate till the sun comes up. And in the coming days… I believe we have some reorganization to do!”
Stories about aging have traditionally focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigor and impending death was resignation coupled with an effort to achieve closure in practical affairs and personal relationships. Given that nothing could be done to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, one could aim for peace of mind.
Today we face a different situation. While we still lack effective and acceptable means for slowing the aging process, we can identify research directions that might lead to the development of such means in the foreseeable future. “Deathist” stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are fatal barriers to urgently needed action.
Many distinguished technologists and scientists tell us that it will become possible to retard, and eventually to halt and reverse, human senescence. At present, there is little agreement about the time-scale or the specific means, nor is there a consensus that the goal is even achievable in principle. In relation to the fable (where aging is, of course, represented by the dragon), we are therefore at a stage somewhere between that at which the lone sage predicted the dragon’s eventual demise and that at which the iconoclast dragonologists convinced their peers by demonstrating a composite material that was harder than dragon scales.
The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.
The argument is not in favor or life-span extension per se. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of life would be pointless. The argument is in favor of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. By slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human life span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.
In addition to this general moral, there are a number of more specific lessons:
(1) A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the fable, people’s expectations adapted to the existence of the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to perceive its badness. Aging, too, has become a mere “fact of life” – despite being the principal cause of an unfathomable amount of human suffering and death.
(2) A static view of technology. People reasoned that it would never become possible to kill the dragon because all attempts had failed in the past. They failed to take into account accelerated technological progress. Is a similar mistake leading us to underestimate the chances of a cure for aging?
(3) Administration became its own purpose. One seventh of the economy went to dragon-administration (which is also the fraction of its GDP that the U.S. spends on healthcare). Damage-limitation became such an exclusive focus that it made people neglect the underlying cause. Instead of a massive publicly-funded research program to halt aging, we spend almost our entire health budget on health-care and on researching individual diseases.
(4) The social good became detached from the good for people. The king’s advisors worried about the possible social problems that could be caused by the anti-dragonists. They said that no known social good would come from the demise of the dragon. Ultimately, however, social orders exist for the benefit of people, and it is generally good for people if their lives are saved.
(5) The lack of a sense of proportion. A tiger killed a farmer. A rhumba of rattlesnakes plagued a village. The king got rid of the tiger and the rattlesnakes, and thereby did his people a service. Yet he was at fault, because he got his priorities wrong.
(6) Fine phrases and hollow rhetoric. The king’s morality advisor spoke eloquently about human dignity and our species-specified nature, in phrases lifted, mostly verbatim, from the advisor’s contemporary equivalents. Yet the rhetoric was a smoke screen that hid rather than revealed moral reality. The boy’s inarticulate but honest testimony, by contrast, points to the central fact of the case: the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also the basic truth about human senescence.
(7) Failure to appreciate the urgency. Until very late in the story, nobody fully realized what was at stake. Only as the king was staring into the bloodied face of the young pleading man does the extent of the tragedy sink in. Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming moral imperative. The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years: a population greater than that of Canada would die as a result. In this matter, time equals life, at a rate of approximately 70 lives per minute. With the meter ticking at such a furious rate, we should stop faffing about.
(8) “And in the coming days… I believe we have some reorganization to do!” The king and his people will face some major challenges when they recover from their celebration. Their society has been so conditioned and deformed by the presence of the dragon that a frightening void now exists. They will have to work creatively, on both an individual and a societal level, to develop conditions that will keep lives flourishingly dynamic and meaningful beyond the accustomed three-score-years-and-ten. Luckily, the human spirit is good at adapting. Another issue that they may eventually confront is overpopulation. Maybe people will have to learn to have children later and less frequently. Maybe they can find ways to sustain a larger population by using more efficient technology. Maybe they will one day develop spaceships and begin to colonize the cosmos. We can leave, for now, the long-lived fable people to grapple with these new challenges, while we try to make some progress in our own adventure.
In recent times, I haven’t spoken much about the anti-aging movement, but this is actually my first life goal: to see anti-aging to its fruition, and propel it there however I can. I’ll likely throw up another post about this in the future, but I agree wholeheartedly with the picture Bostrom paints here - just as with the dragon tyrant, aging is something we need to urgently be working to defeat right now.
For the first time in human history, we’re at a point where it’s feasible we can find real solutions to parts of the aging dilemma in the near future. As we piece these together and refine our advances, perhaps we’ll hit the longevity escape velocity and we’ll all be saved :).
My ideal world would incorporate both indefinite lifespan and some form of save and reload functionality so we can go off and do crazy shit and try again if it fails horribly, so I’m roughly 50/50 on biological and technological approaches to this problem. That’s primarily because I’m much more ignorant than I should be right now, as while this is my first life goal, I’m moving about it in a bit of a nonlinear fashion, for reasons I’m a tad reluctant to explain, as I myself am uncertain that things will work out exactly the way I’m hoping they will, and so would prefer to bite my tongue and speak in hindsight rather than assert my ludicrosity just yet.
To end, I’ll just say that from personal experience many of the people I speak with on this subject give either a general skepticism of the idea or suggest that a world without death would be undesirable, for whatever reasons. Both of these issues are addressed in the fable above, but here I’d just like to note that there has been nothing in humanity’s history to suggest that the way things are are the way they will always be. In fact, our very existence over time has been a testament to how wrong that belief is.
From our sheer evolution from more primitive life forms to our mastery over basic tools and ultimately through rudimentary civilization and manipulation of our environment onwards, in retrospect our pedigree for groundbreaking innovation, invention, and progress is frankly unbelievable, in a quite literal sense of the word. If it hadn’t yet happened, and some random guy came up to me two thousand years ago and tried to describe the world in the 21st century, I literally wouldn’t be able to comprehend half the crazy shit he’d be talking about. It wouldn’t be in the realm of fantasy - it would be in the realm of literally inconceivable fantasy. How would he ever describe to me electricity, radar, atomic bombs, guns, the internet, cell phones, lasers, x-rays, automobiles, robots, DNA, viruses, cells, the brain, or any of the other countless things we now take for granted?
And so far from thinking that the achievement of indefinite lifespan is impossibly foolish and ridiculous, I think it’s in fact foolish and ridiculous to dismiss the possibility that we may very well find ourselves one day in a world where the very notion of death is foreign, just as the notion of a world without electricity and internet are foreign to much of the world being born today.
Aging is a purely physical, biological process - there’s nothing intangible or immutable about it. It is just like any other disease or illness - it has a clear-cut mode of action, and while it may not yet be clear to us, just as once polio and other viruses were not clear to us, there is nothing to suggest that it one day won’t be understood by us at least to the extent that we’re able to actively combat and circumvent it.
In fact, some of the greatest problems facing humanity right now may better be seen as symptoms of aging, or at least caused by the same root factors that cause aging. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, osteoporosis, arthritis - the list goes on - all of these diseases have risk profiles that increase drastically with age. Instead of fixating on solving these symptoms, it’s quite likely our time could much better be spent attempting to fight the root causes of aging, which very well may preclude much of these symptomatic diseases.
Thus, in conclusion: it is of the utmost importance that we are all very aware of this dragon-tyrant ever present in our lives, who threatens to without fail, one by one, scoop up our loved ones before finally one day coming for us. We must be aware of this dragon, and we must too be very careful of resigning ourselves to our seemingly inevitable fate. There is a resistance going on, and we do have a chance. But that chance won’t actualize itself without our help - we must actively take up arms and fight the dragon-tyrant, and we must do so now, for the sooner we begin this war in earnest, the sooner we can win it.
This is another cautionary post, inspired yet again by one of Tynan’s recent entries (sorry for hating on you so much man).
The desire for progress is one of my deepest core motivators. Generally, I try to improve in everything I do, and running is no different.
I started running in high school as part of cross country. That was easy. Every day, the coach told me where I had to be, and what I had to do when I got there. There was no choice. It was mindless, and it worked. I went from never having run in my life to actually beating real, live humans in races. My chronic sleep deprivation during the school year limited my progression, but the improvement was still remarkable.
But the joyous day finally came when school let out forever, and I found myself having to face the prospect of running on my own. Suddenly, everything was different. No one was going to tell me when to run and how to run anymore. No one was going to force me to run - I’d have to procure the motivation to run entirely on my own.
At first, this was all well and good, as I’d been in the habit of running for so long that it wasn’t difficult at all to keep it up. The fact that I invariably started to - and still do - feel fat and sluggish after a few days without a good run also helped.
And so I paid no attention to structuring my running in a way that would maximize my motivation to keep up the habit, and instead focused on trying to continue a trend of improvement and progress. This culminated in the same kind of ‘sprint to the finish line’ philosophy espoused by Tynan, where I felt every run hadn’t reached its full potential if I wasn’t utterly and completely exhausted at the end of the run, and was consequently a bit wasted.
Hence, I took to invariably pushing myself at the end of every run on the final stretch, forcing myself to steadily increase my pace until I broke into a full-out sprint, just as I would in a race. This definitely had the intended effect, and I ended every run completely winded and gasping for breath. It wasn’t very enjoyable much at all, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I ran as much as I could.
This went on for a few months before I started to realize something strange was happening. It seemed like I was running progressively less and less over time. I did a bit of introspection and came to the startling realization that I was starting to dread running - I dreaded even starting a run because I knew it would inevitably end in utter exhaustion and pain, and so I consistently put off ever starting a run.
So this is the story of how my trying to maximize the gains from my runs by running to painful exhaustion ultimately backfired, and my consequently significantly reduced running made me lose far more ground than my little end-run sprints ever gained.
I have no idea if this holds true for everyone, but I learned something very valuable for myself. Maximizing my enjoyment of an activity, and consequently my motivation to engage in the activity, is first and foremost crucial to my success and progress in said activity. I’ve since eliminated final stretch sprints on every run, and am now happily running three times a week without fail, thanks in part to my structured habits and in part to the sheer enjoyment I now derive from each run.