Uncategorized

Bury a body on the beach.

No one needs to know about it but you.

And when they find the bones washed up, the mystery will captivate them.

Chaz Bundick of the band Toro y Moi describes a body he buried in the lyrics of his song Half Dome. Toward the final chorus, he repeats the line:

Look at who you are beside

Again and again, the words lapping like waves. And on the final repetition, nearly inaudible:

Look at who you are beside

(No one)

What could he mean? Is this an illusion to a specific person in his life? An observation about the obliterating vastness of a walk in nature? A red herring to throw everyone off the trail?

When brought in for questioning by the Song Exploder podcast, Chaz offers his confession:

“Yeah, that was intentional. I threw it in there just because it’s fun. The Beatles would do that, just throw in random stuff that was inaudible. It’s for purposes like this, like ‘I found this, what is this?’”

He had no motive. In the midst of creative intention, a carefully obscured piece of nonsense will fascinate them, aggravate them, confuse them, inspire them.

Your art should be a bit weird, a bit inexplicable.

What is this? The question will drive them mad. In your next project, bury a body on the beach.

Uncategorized, Why We Talk

Should you spend an afternoon wandering through any internet forum, you will observe the breadth of human interaction at play. Friends and strangers buzz with tension, disagreement, snark, and bile. Also: encouragement, condolences, anticipation, and gratitude.

Yet there is only one place I know of where people share apologies.

In the game Journey, you wander the pale, sun-baked desert. In solitude, you slide over sand dunes, scale ancient dust-choked ruins, soar through rose-gold valleys. Against the desolate and uncaring plain, we are reduced to a survival instinct. Perhaps the curiosity of what lies beyond the next hill propels us forward for a little while, but in the long stillness even that falters.

And then, suddenly, there is more. At a key moment you find yourself floating beside a red-cloaked companion, a real person playing the game alongside you. Your companion is unnamed. You pass through each other, like ghosts. The only way you can communicate with each other is with a melodic chirp.

As you travel together you can help each other navigate obstacles, but your partner is more than a tool to advance through the game. In this lonely expanse, this anonymous internet stranger becomes your beating heart, a reason to keep caring, to keep moving forward.

Wordlessly, relationships form. One guides the other. Or, you dance like fools in the air, for a moment unconcerned with the temple in the distance. Or, you chirp back and forth, la, la-la, perhaps the first song these sands have ever heard.

Perhaps the first anonymous kindness you have ever received.

That feeling of connection, so deep and unexpected, has led some to quit the game entirely after accidentally separating from their partner. And in one corner of the internet, people apologize to their companions. For the spotty internet that left them alone, for the bungled jump that stalled their progress, for “real” life calling them away.

All with a single melodic chirp.

After Journey, it is difficult to return to the roaring furnace of social media. The wordy diatribes, the looping gifs, the winking emoji, it’s all Times Square loud. Boisterous and garish and menacing. You wonder whether we really need any of this.

You have a golden memory of a friend in the desert. We sang to each other. For a time, it was all we needed.

Uncategorized, Why We Do Better

There is symmetry between our dietary and political preferences:

They have biological antecedents, but are formed by the people who raise us and the circumstances in which we are raised.

The stuff we consume shapes us, literally and figuratively.

Food and politics both become our symbolic identity. We are what we eat. We see the world for what it is. We taste with our tongues. We vote with our hearts. The frontal cortex is largely left out of the loop. Arguments about American interventionism and the best slice of pizza in Manhattan each carry the undertone of existential threat.

As we age, we meet new people, visit new cities, and our diets and political opinions shift – quite unintentionally. One morning, we are surprised to find ourselves eating asparagus and supporting a flat tax. But, we are resolute that these new opinions are the correct opinions, and have always been the correct opinions. We congratulate ourselves for our own keen judgment and uncommon courage.

Where diet and politics differ:

Some people intentionally change their diet.

Those that do begin to perceive the relationships between input and output, context and tradeoff, control and randomness. Food is no longer a mirror; food is an instrument, like any other. We aren’t what we eat.

Imagine if we approached our political opinions in the same fashion.

No, no. We are already in perfect shape.

Uncategorized, Why We Love

We put a face on every cloud.

Our brains impose structure on formlessness with dangerous efficiency. This helps us make decisions in split-seconds, which is important when evading predators on the savannah. However, our impulse to reduce the complex to the coherent ironically complicates our modern lives: relationships become more difficult over time.

Consider meeting a person for the first time over chai and pumpkin bread. Outside of their physical features and a name tag, you know nothing about this person*. By the time you reach the bottoms of your mugs, the stars have aligned and you become infatuated with each other.

* In reality, our existing stereotypes – based on physical features, style of dress, manner of speaking – have already constrained the possibility space. As we will see, this can result in tension right from the start.

At this stage, the possibility space of this person’s attitudes, preferences, habits, and dreams (what we will call their character) is unbounded in your mind. They can say or do anything and it would be a surprise to you. You have no expectations of this person. And, crucially, they have no expectations of you.

This is why the initial rush of a new relationship is so thrilling: not only do you feel the excitement of exploration and novelty, more importantly you feel as boundless as your partner’s understanding of you. We all contain multitudes, contradictions, mysteries, and surprises. Your new partner’s gaze creates a feeling of open sky; you feel wholly seen.

You feel more than whole: your boundlessness in this person’s mind can even push you to expand your own self-imposed identity. Released from your own expectations, you discover a broader sense of self. You find yourself sneaking into parties and buying those cheetah print shoes and singing to yourself just for the hell of it. You feel more than yourself in the eyes of new love.

As time proceeds, your structure-loving brain begins to distill your partner’s rhythms, patterns, and preferences. This is an involuntary process; we instinctually and automatically categorize. Even if our partner were to act and think truly randomly, we would intuit some pattern to their behavior that did not exist. Slowly, we shrink the possibility space of their character. And they shrink ours.

The contraction of expectations is not steady or linear: it might expand on a trip to Marrakech, when they unexpectedly dance along with locals during a street festival, then contract when they refuse to try spicy sardines from a street vendor. Over a long enough period, your expectations calcify. You save time (as our mental heuristics intend to do) by making assumptions and extrapolations about what your partner will and won’t do. We reveal our assumptions explicitly and implicitly: by not bringing up politics, or going to a new play with work colleagues, or suggesting the same restaurant as usual. We act and respond to the character in our head, not the person.

Our own personal change accelerates this dynamic. We grow to enjoy new types of music. Our career goals transform with experience. Our values, needs, desires, and aspirations are all budding and wilting and flowering faster than our partner’s comprehension. Not only do they interact with a limited piece of who we are, but with an outdated blueprint. They talk past us, to the past us.

This gap, between the messy, expansive, evolving reality of who we are and the boxed, assumed, specific model of who we are thought to be is the central source of conflict in many relationships, be they familial or romantic, friendly or transactional.

The question becomes: how do we cultivate and preserve a limitless sense of another human being?

Perhaps the first step is to admit the limitations of our own knowledge. To remain aware of the explosive gap between form and reality, character and person. We will never map a partner’s borders. The romance is in the search.

Uncategorized, Why We Fuck Up

At least once a day, you’ll see someone (often an HR executive or neighborhood activist / gatekeeper) implore others to preserve their culture. To freeze the ever-shifting sand of  local values, attitudes, preferences, and rituals in their current state: glorious, vibrant, distinct (affordable, funky, English-speaking, authentic, etc., etc.).

Astute observers of history realize that cultural preservation is impossible.

That is because a culture is changed by the efforts to preserve it.

As a result, if you find yourself upset about the changing culture of your environment, you have the following options:

  1. Change yourself to align with the new culture’s values (i.e. assimilation; easy, sometimes soul deadening).
  2. Move to a different environment (i.e. change jobs, neighborhoods, etc; also easy, but impermanent).
  3. Assemble and segregate a group of people that shares your devotion to the disappearing culture (i.e. create a culture ghetto; easy, impermanent, usually results in radicalization)
  4. Declare yourself defender of your culture and harass change agents into leaving (poisonous, ultimately futile; most common choice)
  5. Start a new culture (most difficult; most rewarding)

The choice is yours.

Uncategorized, Why We Learn

A close friend told me that she learned more in the first year after college than she did during her four years in college.

This is a failure of the college system, and it stems from a lack of skin in the game.

Nassim Taleb defines having “skin in the game” as a “morally mandatory heuristic that anyone involved in an action which can possibly generate harm for others, even probabilistically, should be required to be exposed to some damage, regardless of context.”1

It’s the reason he ridicules economists, consultants, and every other flavor of theoreticians: they pass risk onto others while remaining unaffected by the potential damage of their advice. Having “skin in the game” is not only an ethical imperative, its a means to distribute and thereby reduce (or at least not hide) risk.

The problem with colleges and universities is that when it comes to their students’ post-graduation success, they don’t have skin in the game.

When graduates fail to find jobs, the schools are unaffected. The risk that a college provides a poor education – that the classes are unhelpful, or misleading, or simply do not adequately prepare students for thoughtful life and work – is borne entirely by the student. The student risks unemployment, or bad employment, or (worst of all) being swallowed into academia. None of these scenarios harm the school (except, perhaps, creating dull grad school parties). Conversely, the institution profits from successful alumnae in the form of donations and reputation-by-association.

Without skin in the game, without shared risk, universities are less incentivized to ensure the success of their graduates.

This is also the reason that so many graduates find a rather sharp learning curve upon entering the working world: the companies that employ them have skin in the game. If the employee is untrained and makes mistakes, then the company suffers. Both employee and company share the risk that the company’s training and development resources are adequate.

Interestingly, there has been an educational model around for thousands of years whereby the educator has skin in the game regarding their student’s success: the apprenticeship.

Uncategorized, Why We Do Better

I’m spending the next few days on a road trip with a couple friends. We’re driving to Salt Lake City with no particular goal in mind other than to enjoy the contrast and take photos along the way.

During this time, I’ll share a few resources on nutrition and fitness. These ideas were culled over the past twelve months of learning and testing diet and strength programs.

This first one, however, isn’t mine. It’s from Jodie Foster (!?), as shared in the What I’ve Learned column in Esquire:

In the end, winning is sleeping better.

Consider this the first principle of good health: if you’re sleeping better, you’re on the right track. Sleep is an objective measurement of the quality of the food you eat, the physical activities you perform, the relationships you build, the calling you follow.

Uncategorized, Why We Create, Why We Love

“The point about fascism, in this case religious fascism, is that one of the things it mosts hates is pleasure. That’s to say – what did the Taliban ban? They banned movie theaters. They banned music. They banned acting. Hugging and kissing. They were banning pleasure, the war is against pleasure…

The point is: puritanism is always anti-pleasure. And so we need to fight it by building, preserving, and maintaining a world in which boys and girls can hold hands, where you can listen to music, where you can go to movies. In which you can do the things that make life rich.”

Listen to Salman Rushdie talk to Brian Koppleman about the war for pleasure at 58:20 of their interview.

When you have an hour to spare, listen to the full interview, as it is a brilliant window into love, magic, and the creative life.

And for god’s sake, go make some pleasure today.

Uncategorized, Why We Do Better

As I’ve explained in the past, introverts gain energy in solitude. Extraverts (those charming bastards) gain energy around other people.

I didn’t explain it well enough, though. Here’s the complication: this energy balance dynamic exists independently across multiple facets of personality.

The question isn’t “am I an introvert or extravert?” It’s “what parts of me are introverted or extraverted?”

Let’s test this filter:

My ideation is extraverted. I come up with my best ideas in dialogue with other people and strategize collaboratively. I’ve started taking notes during my hangouts; they’ve seeded many of the ideas I’ve written about here.

However, my execution is introverted. Which means actually implementing the idea, writing the story, doing the work: I tend to do those best in isolation. Making things with a partner drains me faster than long periods of making in isolation.

My willpower is introverted. My ability to delay gratification, pass up delicious foods, optimize for the long term rather than act in the moment is sapped the longer i’m around people.

But my dance energy is extraverted. Alone I tend to recline on the nearest couch, but around people my feet shuffle. Suddenly, I am stepping to a beat, whether in my head or on the speakers. The more people, the greater my capacity to dance all night. On a several occasions, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

My attention is introverted. I can focus on a single task for longer in isolation. In public, I can shut the blinders for 30 minutes before I require a break, a walk, a snack.

My music-orientation is extraverted. That is to say, around other people my drive to make and curate music swells. I fiddle with the radio, or tap/shake/strum any instruments in proximity, or absorb myself in building a playlist for the room. At home, those things take effort. Outside, I’m charmed to it like a cobra.

I do not sing, though. My singing is introverted. Shoutout to my neighbors, literally. Our thin walls give them a front row seat to my most aggressive rap lyrics, shrillest falsettos, my most reckless of jazz-scatting. The longer I am alone in the apartment, the louder i get.

You understand.

Topple the notion that you are an introvert or extravert, and begin to consider the competing dimensions along which you tip one way or the other. Alone, some parts of you are recharging, and some are depleting. At a house party, you may find that you have 60 minutes before you no longer wish to talk to anybody, but you can cook for the room until the hors d’oeuvres run dry and it’s time for pancakes.

Uncategorized, Why We Fuck Up

I was going to talk about ritual and learned behavior. I was going to start with a story about a psych study I learned about years ago. In the study, they put five monkeys in a room with a ladder. At the top of the ladder was a banana. Every time one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get the banana, they were sprayed with frigid water as punishment. Eventually they stopped going up the ladder.

One by one, they removed a monkey that had been sprayed and added a naive monkey. Each time, the group of monkeys prevented the new guy/girl from climbing the ladder. Eventually, they had a room full of monkeys that prevented each other from going up the ladder, despite never being sprayed.

The study illustrates the way we learn dangerous, self-defeating lessons from each other despite none of us having tested our assumptions.

The problem is, the study never happened. It’s a fabricated story told for the first time in a mid-90s business book.

I discovered that the study was B.S. this morning as I prepared to write.

It’s disappointing, because the lesson is so alluring. It makes intuitive sense. It reveals the value of fable, myth, and religion – the veracity of the stories feels secondary to the wisdom they impart.

However, it is precisely the things we regard as fact that we should evaluate most closely.

We are terrible at this. Our brains natively seek evidence to confirm what we believe and what we want to believe. This leads to all sort of negative events, from systemic racial and gender bias, to catastrophic economic fragility, to misleading blog posts (very shameful).

You may have set some goals this year for things you want to learn. As students, whether in school or out, we have our curriculum. What we also require is an anti-curriculum: the set of knowledge that we seek to disconfirm by the end of the year. Set a goal to disprove at least one thing you regard as fact each month.

The surest path to wisdom is not adding what is true, but cutting away what is not true.