We all equate size with virtue.

This isn’t a premise for a kinky adult film, it’s a kink in our psychology.

One of the most profound and unexpected spiritual experiences I had was during my first visit to the giant Buddha statue inside Todai-ji temple. I felt instinctually overwhelmed standing before something towering and humanoid. I swelled with awe before the titan, and in that moment understood the power of vastness to instill religiosity among the heathens.

I received a similar set of chills a couple years later, standing in front of a large construction crane.

What i’m suggesting is that we are suckers for huge things.

Again, I promise this isn’t a porn thing.

Whether we’re gathering beneath the Aurora Borealis to feel the ineffable enormity of the universe in our bones, or paying employees $800 more per year for every inch they stand above average, we give offerings to that which makes us feel small.

With this in mind, I’ve reached the following conclusion: should we encounter intelligent life among the stars, I damn sure hope they are taller than us.

Let’s imagine two scenarios: in both scenarios we contact alien life forms that are not only intelligent, but demonstrate far greater cognition than our own gelatinous equipment allows. These two alien races look and act exactly the same, except the first race, the Roussimoffians, are fifty feet tall, and the second race, the Devitotians, are twenty inches tall. Roughly the same height as a chicken.

Please play these movies out in your head, side by side.

Spoiler alert: we begin to worship the Rousimoffians. We start an galactic war with the Devitotians. We don’t win that war.

Here’s our one possibility for survival, should we encounter Devitotians. Blessed with superior intellect, they observe us prior to contact and discern that we are obstinate size-reverent monkeys. Seeking a peaceful and productive interaction, they construct colossal avatars through which they communicate with humanity. With their guidance, all diseases are cured, interstellar travel becomes common. Legroom in economy class of spaceships continues to be a hassle. We follow the giant avatars into a thrilling golden age of humanity. Privately, the Devitotians snicker as we dance to their interstellar marionette show.

Sometimes it’s not until years or decades after a public figure has passed away that we begin to piece together who they were in private through their letters and diaries.

Although Facebock and Twetter and Snachtap have given every person with a phone the tools to become a worldwide celebrity, I suspect that in the distant future historians may have more difficulty researching and understanding our private lives.

The reason is that as we move the majority of our thinking and correspondence online, we also tuck most of it behind a layer of encrypted security. This is unquestionably a reasonable thing to do while we’re alive. And despite what the more conspiracy-minded might think, most of these companies fight hard to protect personal data even after their members pass away. In some cases, they will release some data to families of the deceased, but this is not standardized across the industry and the process can be prohibitively difficult.

The question our dedicated future historians might pose is whether there should be any sort of expiration date on that security. It’s understandable that a person’s correspondence doesn’t feel any less private in the days and weeks after they die. After all, the recipients and subjects of those messages are probably still around.

However, privacy is a concept that exponentially decreases in importance once you no longer have a self. The people two hundred years from now will have no respect for today’s secrets, any more than we would leave a journal from 1816 unopened.

With today’s mechanisms of digital security, the challenge for historians won’t be discovery, but access. In the year 2216, the primary discipline of historians won’t be analog archeology – the practice of uncovering and analyzing physical records – but digital archeology. Otherwise known as hacking.

There is a devotional quality to learning a skill.

Our brains don’t comprehend time very well at all. Perhaps this is unfortunate; imagine we only had one eye and had to infer three-dimensional space. It’s sort of like that with time: we are extremely nearsighted. We really only understand time within intervals of a few moments – intervals that are compact enough to fit inside our short term memory. These intervals are where cause and effect are starkly evident to us: A caused B to happen. For the bulk of human history, this was good enough because the dangers to us were primarily imminent ones: flash floods, animal ambushes, sudden illness. Experience was our teacher, and taught vivid lessons in an instant. Our brains, borrowed from our hairier, scalier predecessors, were well-tuned and optimized for quick decision making in short intervals.

This optimization came at the expense of discerning cause and effect over long durations. It’s not that slower forces (e.g. cognitive and physical degeneration of age) didn’t act on us, it’s that keen perception of them didn’t convey a significant survival advantage in our environment. Organisms developed two eyes for spatial awareness because three-dimensional space was critical to survival. Unfortunately, we haven’t developed two eyes for temporal awareness so that we can ‘see’ more than a few minutes into the future.

This disability chafes at anybody who seeks to implement a long term change, whether it’s learning a language or building a savings or losing twenty pounds. Because these changes happen in tiny increments, in fits and starts, over months and years, we are blind to progress as it happens.

This is one of the first and biggest challenges to anyone who seeks to change themselves: there is an aspect of faith that must reside within you that you are moving forward. If we record our state and review it after long durations, we can admit that some change has occurred. Yet moment to moment, learning feels an awful lot like walking with our eyes closed: we have no idea whether we are moving in the right direction, or any direction. We must trust our feet to keep walking and sharpen our senses for new cues along the way.

It’s a frustrating thing when your good idea doesn’t stand up to your own scrutiny. When, examined, your brilliance falls apart like white bread in water.

However, unlike bridge engineers, it’s probably healthy for us to get our bad ideas out into the world. Seth Godin suggests people who claim they don’t have any good ideas probably also don’t have many bad ideas either. It’s only through generating a bunch of bad ideas that we can cobble any good’uns.

So here’s one from my bad idea pile.

I think cars are a negative and we should be rid of them. Put aside the environmental damage and the 1.25 million fatalities they cause each year. Those are concrete, pragmatic reasons, and remember my idea is bad and not easily defensible.

The reason cars should be abolished is because they don’t help us access the two spaces that are most important to our personal development: hyper-local and very-distant.

Hyper-local spaces are anything within walking distance. For most people, this is within a two mile radius. This is the space where you build and strengthen your connection to a community. This is where you become a ‘regular’ at the cafe, at the bar, at the bodega where you buy wine and chocolate, at the phø place where you get lunch on weekends.

Very-distant spaces are far enough away that the accents and weather are different, 300-500 miles at least. It’s important for people to visit very-distant spaces to cultivate their appreciation for different cultures and ways of being. Traveling overseas inspires people precisely because the very-distant confronts with radical novelty, strangeness, and the sublime.

The hyper-local is where you connect, the very-distant is where you learn. Everything in between is the middle distance: places that take time to get to, but aren’t very different from where we are. You don’t connect with people in these spaces because you rarely see them. You aren’t prompted to think about the world in a new way, because the space is too culturally similar to notice any differences. The middle distance is only accessible by cars, and the time it takes to get there is rarely worth it.

We should seek to avoid the middle distance, and I think the best way to do that is to rid ourselves of cars.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is a terrible solution:

  • The quality of local businesses would decline without a greater area of competition
  • Population density around airports and train stations would explode unless rail and bus lines were vastly expanded
  • Traveling to non-urban areas like mountains, forests, and national parks would become more difficult

So this is clearly not a good idea. But, just like you might pass off an old piano to a friend willing to tune and restore it, perhaps you can make some use out of this broken argument, fashion whatever is interesting about it into something useful, something worth preserving for yourself.

It’s probably not the case that you have writers’ block. It’s probably that whatever’s cruising through your head feels too specific, too irrelevant, or too personal to share with your imagined audience.

No matter: this is where the most interesting ideas lie.

Why does 99% of small talk suck? Because we try to stick to universal topics – things we feel confident apply to everyone, and are guaranteed not to offend. This is how we end up talking about the weather – everyone experiences it, and everyone experiences it in pretty much the same way. In chasing pleasant conversation, we chase it away.

It’s impossible to deeply care about anything that applies to everybody equally.

Here’s a trick to overcome writer’s block: talk about something so specific that no one reading will be able to relate to it.

There’s a special place in Granada, Spain called Bar Poe. To get there, you have to leave Calle Recogidas and venture down a smaller street called Calle Puentezeuelas, and from there turn down two more alleys. First left, then right. You’ll know you’ve found the correct place if the owner is a older British expat. Order a glass of red wine, and he’ll ask you what food you’d like to eat with it. Ask for the feijoada or the thai chicken. The food comes with the wine, free of charge. Everything on the menu is delicious, but start with those. You will order more wine, and more food along with it, as the night trots on.  The tiny bar will fill with locals and students visiting from abroad. They’ll all have their own stories about how they found Poe Bar.

Do not ask them about the weather.

I think I figured out why karaoke is so much damn fun.

Last weekend I sang karaoke, shouted my little lungs out for a few hours to Foo Fighters, System of a Down, Marilyn Manson, Rihanna (IBNLT). By the end I was a bit hoarse and a bit damp and percolating in seratonin and dopamine. It could be that I just enjoy sing/shouting, but I think there’s something a little more going on. I think there’s something about sometimes shouting that also makes us healthier.

The core of the idea is that short sprints of effort followed by periods of rest outperform consistent, steady levels of effort. It’s one of those patterns that seems to pop up everywhere in nature and culture once you look for it:

Fitness: There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that high intensity interval training is as effective as steady state cardio in improving endurance and increasing fat loss, and may be more effective in reducing insulin sensitivity and markers for type-2 diabetes.

Nutrition: Similarly, nutrition scientists now tout the benefits of intermittent fasting for decreasing diabetes risk, improving cholesterol markers, and accelerating fat loss.

Stoic philosophy: Seneca suggests practicing poverty for a few days each year to inoculate yourself to the fear of failure and loss:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

Mental Focus: We do our best work when we take breaks. A 2014 study found that employees accomplished more when they alternated 52 minutes of work with 17 minutes of rest.

Back to singing:

As kids, we learn not to shout in public places. It’s rude, we learn, to disturb others with our unmodulated honking and quacking. For most kids, the edict extends into the home – quiet down, calm down, pipe down. And if our parents didn’t make it clear, teachers shamed and punished us into silent civility.

I’d argue though, that vocal cords are made to be stretched to their limits. Our biceps swell from the stress of the barbell, our hearts pump harder from the strain of the sprint, and our brains bathe in endorphins to reward us, to say, “yes, do this more.” Just the same, our bodies ache to flatten the world with the unleashed power of our voice. In doing so, our lungs grow stronger, and so do our hearts and our spirits.

There is a clarifying moment during intense effort. Sprint or sing or lift or draw as hard as you can, and for an instant the world falls away. Or perhaps, more precisely, you disappear. The inner narrator disappears. Time narrows; you aren’t considering the past or aware of the future.

Alan Watts argues that this is the moment that fear ceases to exist within us.

Roaring into a microphone in a basement in the Tenderloin, I could care less about all that. The universe is a song singing itself. I am in Nirvana.

I wonder what would happen if Facebook News Feed read in chronological order, rather than reverse chronological order.

Imagine, every day, you open up Facebook on your laptop or your phone, and the top story is the first update from when you opened your account. For me, that would be 12 years ago, in March 2004. The only way to get to the updates from today is to scroll down through the years, people, and places you’ve met along the way. Every time.

How might that reorient our sense of self? Might it pull our attention away from the distracting chatter of today’s news trivia, and affix it to the events that turned out to actually matter to our lives?

Would we better appreciate the friends we’ve gained and lost?

Would we remember last year’s lessons so as to not repeat them tomorrow?

Would we stop listening to the same pundits whose predictions are proven wrong time and time and time again when we see their self-sure B.S. naked in the light of hindsight?

Would we become more firmly rooted to who we were, or less?

Would we think less about who we are, and more about who we are becoming?

There’s an apocryphal story about a team of researchers that discovered a village of people that had no previous contact with the modern world. The researchers began to document the villagers with their cameras, but when they showed them the photos the villagers became agitated. The people believed that the cameras were stealing their souls through the pictures. The researchers recorded this reaction in their notebooks, and their published observations highlighted the villagers’ primitive understanding of technology. The villagers could only understand the physics of photography through the lens (pardon) of their spiritualism, which was far more concrete to them than optics.

This is actually one of those apocryphal stories that turns out to be absolutely true. In fact, you can test it out yourself.

Just walk to the busiest intersection in town and start photographing people as they wait to cross the street. Adults, children, whoever.

You will quickly find yourself interrogated, avoided, perhaps even threatened. The natives will get antsy.

Why do the natives show such hostility? “You didn’t get my permission.” “You are invading my privacy.” They will suspect you of exploitation or perversion or aggression.

Both personal privacy and soul-theft are post-hoc rationalizations, metaphors we use to explain the basic intuition that we are more than our physical bodies, and that there are tools to access and tamper that incorporeal domain.

There is something in us that still feels, on a primitive level, that the act of photography affects the photographed. We can choose to give to the camera; the camera (and the photographer) takes your picture. The transaction consists of more than just photons. There is a transference of our inner selves – our emotions, our reputations, our aspirations, our insecurities. Light transubstantiated into soul.

You’ll find that the people most thoughtful about a given topic are also the people who profess to know the least about it it.

This heuristic is beautifully captured by Maria Popova in her conversation with Krista Tippett.

“As a culture we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And of course, knowing is the cessation of thinking. There is this epidemic of listicles – why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history?”

Just as you stop exploring once you reach your destination, when you decide that you know something completely you cease thinking about it. Your intellectual world shrinks and calcifies. Certainty is the border you draw between your curiosity and the teeming, tangled, ever-shifting jungle of reality. It is beyond these borders that Black Swans prowl.

Catalogue the list of things you know, and resolve to un-know them.

Beginners should be suspicious of validation.

Yesterday I listened to Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson tell Marc Maron the story of creating Broad City, the funniest show on TV right now. They were students at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre in New York, but found that they couldn’t get on any of the improv teams that performed shows in the evening. So, they collected their ideas for sketches, borrowed a camera from the school, and began filming five-minute episodes that became their web series. After two years of making these, they connected with Amy Poehler, who helped get them pilot meetings with Comedy Central.

Put simply, they created something completely new because they were rejected from organizations that existed at the time.

Coincidentally, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade itself began back in the 90s as a subversion and rejection of the stodgy sketch and standup comedy world of the 80s. As an institution, it lasted long enough to create its own validation mechanisms, which in turn rejected Abbi and Ilana.

The question is whether Broad City would have existed if they had been accepted onto an improv team back in 2009.

My guess is that the show wouldn’t exist, at least not yet, and perhaps never at the scale of success it has earned.

Established institutions have a normalizing effect. To be accepted into the in-group, you have to conform to whatever standards that group has implicitly or explicitly set. And once you’re there, you tend to revert to the mean.

There’s nothing wrong with being accepted into a peer group that you respect, whether it’s people that go to a particular university or perform comedy in a particular scene, or create a particular form of art. It’s both a thrill and a comfort to get that type of validation. But being exceptional necessarily means being different than what is currently valued, accepted, and understood.

One of the most dangerous threats to exceptional beginners is early validation from the existing establishment. The allure of rounding ones edges, of shying away from original ideas and untested assumptions in order to fit in is too strong.

To be exceptional, you should be pissing people off, or confusing them, or disappointing them roughly as often as you are pleasing them.