the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party

Your emotions are real, but they are not reality.

Snake cake

These days, reality seems to be a matter of opinion, or perhaps mere assertion. But this isn’t just a recent phenomenon; it’s a divergence of the modern world from evolutionary biology that has been progressing for many generations, with increasingly stark effects.

Your body does not, cannot, and should not give you a truly faithful representation of the world. The world is too full for you to take in everything. Even if you were standing alone on an empty savannah, with no other living creature in sight, you would be overwhelmed by sensory overload if you could really take in everything around you: the infinite cocktail of light and shapes, sounds and scents, the feel of the particles in the air and the ground beneath your feet. You are like an ant in the ocean of all that surrounds you. To compensate, your five senses evolved to filter information down to a set that your brain can process into a different set of data that your body can act on. What you can sense is smaller than what exists, and what you perceive is different from what you can sense.

But even this finely processed data is a confusing panoply of input. Somehow, you have to figure out what to do about your perceptions. The most primal tools you have in making these decisions are your emotions.

Your emotions evolved so that you are urged to act in a matter that best suits your survival and the propagation of your genetic heritage. You might like to believe that you are not such a simple machine, but you surely are or you wouldn’t be here. Had you and all of your ancestors not experienced emotions related to hunger, you would not have survived to this point.

Now the world is a vastly different place than it has been throughout nearly all of our evolutionary history, and we are well into a time where our emotions easily lead us to wrong decisions. But it’s not so simple to determine when we are being served poorly by our emotions, because despite the mismatch between prehistoric evolution and our modern world, our emotions can be: always wrong, wrong but right, or really complicated. I can explain this more clearly with three scenarios named “the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.”

The Cake

Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly on the hunt for food, and food was not always easily accessible. On the rare occasion when they stumbled upon some luscious morsel of fat, or some delicate repository of sugar, it was to their evolutionary advantage to immediately devour that treasure.

Today of course, our industrial food supply surrounds us with tempting confections of fat and sugar, combined in manners that are exquisitely tuned to trigger our desire to eat. When you see a piece of cake, you may have an emotion that compels you to immediately cram as much of it into your mouth as quickly as possible.

This emotion, however, is always wrong. Unless you are in an unfortunate state of deprivation, it is not true that this is a rare piece of cake that is critical to your survival and a boon to your odds of producing progeny. The truth is exactly opposite: incessant indulgence of this instinct to eat cake will lead to your premature death and very probably to a reduction in your mating prospects.

So this is the simplest example of second-guessing your emotions: In the past, this emotion was always right, and today it is always wrong.

The Snake

Imagine you are walking through the forest, enjoying a lovely day, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a deadly snake at your foot, poised to bite and fill your body with poison. You jump away from the threat even faster than you perceive it.

Your heart pounding in your chest, the fear coursing electric in your body, you look down at the ground and see that what you thought was a snake was really just a stick.

The next day on another idyllic walk, nearly the exact same thing happens: the sudden appearance of a snake, a shocked leap out of harm’s way, and then the sheepish realization that there’s no real threat. Maybe this time it’s a lizard. Or it is a snake, but it’s just not a deadly one.

And this happens over and over again, and you never learn your lesson, you just keep jumping like a fool. Until one day, you look down and it really is a deadly snake. You pick up a rock and you bash its head in.

This emotion, this often irrational fear, survives today. You may not walk in the woods that often, but maybe you park your car in a dark parking lot, and when you hurry to your car late at night, you grip your keys tightly, interlaced in your fingers to defend yourself from the attack that never comes. Maybe you walk down a dark street in a neighborhood of ill repute, and you nervously cross the street when you see strangers approaching on your side.

Are you paranoid, are you making unkind assumptions? Yes. Do you need this emotion to survive? Absolutely, yes. The genetic lines of people who completely lacked this emotion are gone now, as they were all killed by deadly snakes.

So in this case, the emotion is almost always wrong, but nevertheless you must honor it in your actions for the unacceptable consequences of the one time that it is right.

The Cocktail Party

At a festive gathering of a few dozen people, you are talking to a person that you have never met before that evening. The conversation is pleasant enough, but in an unguarded moment you make an errant comment that you suddenly realize might have offended this person. You are about to clarify your words, but just at that moment you are interrupted by a friend who appears at your shoulder, and when you turn back to your previous conversation partner, she has disappeared into the swirls and eddies of the party.

Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But then why does it keep you up at night? You replay the scene in your head and pick over every detail, wondering if you offended this perfectly pleasant person, agonizing over how the words came out and what you should have said differently. The emotions of social mortification can be gut-wrenchingly powerful. What gave them such power, and should we still honor that power today?

In pre-historic times, people lived in very small groups, and for many millennia your largest social context might only be the size of a small village. Almost every person that you met would be someone you would interact with many times over the course of your lifetime. If you had an awkward social interaction with someone, you would want to repair this social tear, and you will quickly have many chances to do so. Reconciliation would be important not only for your relationship with this person, but so that you would not gain a reputation in the village for being unsociable. Such a reputation is an evolutionary death sentence, as effectively all of the people you meet in your lifetime would become unwilling to to procreate with you.

Today the situation is very different, but not entirely different. You will certainly never meet all of the people in your reasonably reachable geographic vicinity. However, a great many of us, perhaps even the great majority of us, continue to live in small social circles. Consider the example of an entrepreneur in San Francisco attending a cocktail party filled with the most connected investors in the Bay Area. An egregious party foul here could effectively end the entrepreneur’s ability to continue working, a consequence as extreme as any village faux pas on the prehistoric savannah. The same concerns might apply to certain types of gatherings for a writer in New York, a union laborer in Pittsburgh, or a rug dealer in Morocco. Or even a social media addict posting to her favorite group on Facebook.

But the context is really difficult to assess. Are the investors at this party really that connected? Does that merchants’ association in Morocco really enforce its unwritten rules? Is that Facebook activity really going to spread anywhere outside the group? And who is really in this group anyway? The modern world has made this assessment extremely complicated.

So the cocktail party is an example where the emotion used to be nearly always right, and today whether to honor that emotion in your actions involves a complex assessment of reality.

But what is reality?

Reality is the set of information that allows you to make rational decisions that further your best interests. There are many, many things that get in the way of your clear perception of reality, and foremost among them are your emotions. Emotions have not evolved to accord with the reality of the modern world. For the most part, you cannot change the emergence of your emotions, as they remain encoded to respond to stimuli of many thousands of years ago.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a prisoner of your emotions. You can allow them to occur while nevertheless choosing to act in accord with reality. However, you must continue to honor the emotions that have beneficial effects in the modern context. To make choices among those emotions wisely, you should keep in mind the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.

Update 4/22/20: Just saw this relevant series on “evolutionary mismatch,” the technical term for this phenomenon.


This has been a watershed week for sexism and Silicon Valley. The New York Times published a searing article implicating well known VCs in harassing behavior. It feels like the culmination of a years-long effort spearheaded by Sarah Lacy, whose relentless reporting helped lead to the resignation of the CEO of the most valuable private company in tech as well as the dismantling of a VC firm.

For men in tech, it’s been a good week to reflect on the injustices done to women, to think about the women in these stories and the women in our own lives. A focus on the women’s perspectives is clearly the most necessary, just and safest line of introspection. This post is not for people who haven’t undertaken that line of thought. This post is about the men.

Chris Sacca and Dave McClure are two of the men highlighted (lowlighted?) in the Times. Each responded with a well-written admission of guilt. Sacca said “I am sorry” five times in a single post. McClure admitted “I’m a creep.” I’ve seen two kinds of responses to these mea culpas:

Group 1: “This is a transparent PR move. These guys are only interested in saving their own skins. They don’t deserve praise for coming clean after being exposed, and the actions they’ve taken in their ‘woke’ stage will never be enough to clean their record. People don’t change, they are what they did.

Group 2: “Kudos to these guys for coming clean. It takes some bravery to face the crowd, to admit what you did, to make a public statement about your efforts to do better. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s the rare few who can improve upon their past. People can change, there’s no hope for any of us if that’s not true.

Group 1 is right … and so is Group 2. The day I write my admission of guilt, even if only to myself, it will be driven by this truth: You can’t change who you are, you can only change your reaction to it.

You are what you’ve done, full stop. You might think that there’s more to it, that your own private thoughts count for something, that the high opinion of your loving friends and family mean something, that the dollars and ratings and likes and tweets show the true score. But no. You are what you’ve done, that’s it. And you can’t change what you’ve already done.

Everyone has done bad things. When we do bad things, we often want to believe that they’re not so bad, that they’re not consistent with our “true” character, that we somehow can make up for it in other ways. This kind of self-denial, of course, allows us to continue doing bad things. I’d argue further that this self-denial leaves us with little choice other than to continue doing bad things.

Being a good person is about choice, for most of us. If you are someone who has just always been a good person, who’s never done wrong, who’s always been on the side of the angels – well, I think you’ve probably just been lucky in this regard, if unlucky in others. You had good parents, good friends, good influences. You’ve never been tempted by sex or power or money or fame. But you’ve lived a life outside of the more typical human condition.

Once you’ve done something bad, your options typically diminish: you can only feel guilt and shame, or denial. You would think that a “good” person would choose guilt and shame – but that’s just as dangerous as denial! Guilt and shame lead to self-flagellation, often self-medication, and ultimately to an amplification and repetition of the behaviors that led to the bad actions.

It may seem perverse, but accepting your faults gives you more options for how to react in any situation. If you can accept what you’ve done, accept that it’s who you are, you are more free to choose how to react to it. You don’t have to choose the cover-up, you don’t have to choose to deny it, you don’t have to choose to ignore it. You are much more free to address it, and to make a different choice in the future.

I think that’s what Sacca and McClure are doing in their posts; they are publicly accepting who they are, and trying to make choices in the harsh light of that reality. Is it self-interested? Yes. Is it brave? Yes. I know that some people reading this are going to think I’m going all Stuart Smalley, and I get it. That’s their choice. You can’t change who you are.

burning questions

Since coming back from my first trip to Burning Man, I’ve been turning over some questions in my mind. Well, not some questions, just one question, or rather multiple angles on a single question, trying to get to the heart of the matter like an artist’s chisel biting through stone to find the sculpture within. The question I started with was, What do you do with the problem of Burning Man?

And what’s the problem of Burning Man? That you have to come back, is the facile answer. Re-entry into “default world” is a problem. You spend a week in the desert without a lot of structure or societal expectations, immersed in humanity with good will and open spirits. There is some kind of magic in the desert, there is every kind of magic in the desert. And then you have to return “home” and face a world with a lot of structure and without a lot of humanity. This is such a problem that a common reaction is to reverse the concept of home, so that a return to the desert every year results in a resounding call of “Welcome home!”

Home is where the heart is, so I can understand why people would call a place home if it’s where their hearts are most alive. But your heart is always with you – if it’s not, you’re not alive, and I mean this figuratively although it’s literally true – so if you’re not at home wherever you are, this is literally (and now I mean figuratively) a mortal problem.

I would restate the Problem of Burning Man as a problem of dust. In the desert, the dust is everywhere, it covers everything, seeps into every crevice, covers you, envelops you, surrounds you and blinds you. The dust is everywhere and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience you’re having, the openness of your heart and largeness of your spirit, the humanity around you and within you.

And in the real world, you don’t see the dust. But the humanity that you now know exists is completely buried under vast layers of societal structure, expectations, obligations, fears and neuroses. These are layers of dust that matter more than anything else, for they prevent you from reaching the things that truly should matter most of all. In the desert, the dust is everywhere, highly visible and yet it doesn’t matter, while in the real world, the dust is everywhere, invisible and seems like the only thing that does matter.

So the Problem of Burning Man is not that you have to go home, or that you have to figure out what’s worth calling “home,” but that wherever you go, the humanity that you discovered in the desert is actually there as well, but covered in dust that you can’t see and so can’t ignore.

What do you do with this Problem? Some people opt out of the life they were living, quit their jobs, leave their lovers, hit the road. Some devote their lives to digging through the dust, joining non-profits, humanitarian missions, trying to dig through the vast invisible desert to find the humanity underneath. Some descend into cynicism and escapism, hating the world they live in while waiting only for a return to the desert.

For me, I’ve enjoyed carving out this problem with my dull chisel and a few blows of a heavy hammer. I’ll probably continue to work on it, wielding increasingly sharper tools and refined motions. Once it’s carved into a delicate figurine, I’ll have to decide whether to toss it into a dark closet, or put it up on the shelf, or carry it around in my pocket, or swallow it whole and make it forever a part of me.

my goodness

The other day I met with my “periodic friend” – my term for a friend that you meet only once in a long while, but those meetings instantly become deeply personal conversations. This is different from the longtime friend who has been separated by circumstances of geography, family or career – many of us have the childhood or old school friend whom we rarely see, but who always provides a joyful reunion at every occasional reconnection. The periodic friend is much rarer – in a sense, the friendship depends on the periodic nature of the contact. You might not even enjoy more regular social engagement with this friend. Friendship is about recognizing your kinship with another, finding yourself in someone else. So a periodic friendship provides a unique opportunity to visit with yourself after long intervals of being apart – sort of like living out the “7-Up” documentary series, where the filmmaker chronicles the lives of the same set of people in portraits composed every seven years.

My periodic friend and I tend to fall into comically introspective conversation at every meeting. One thing that binds us is the anguished belief that there is something broken, dark and irreparable within us, some character flaw, an absence of humanity that no worldly bounty can fix. Yes, it’s dramatic and self-involved in an embarrassing, adolescent fashion. But it’s perversely fun to talk about.

My friend brought up the Platonic proposition of the ring of invisibility. This ancient concept was dramatized most popularly in The Lord of the Rings. The question goes something like, “What is the first thing you would do if you acquired a ring that made you invisible when you wore it?” Think on this for a moment but answer as quickly as you can.

He could barely express the question before I gave my honest response: I’d go visit a women’s locker room. Hey, I grew up in the ’80s, when Porky’s was a major movie franchise. My friend had a different, though equally amoral response. The point of the question, as in all interesting questions, was really in the follow-on question: “Do you think there is anyone who would honestly give a response that wasn’t bad?”

Even the most saintly figure wouldn’t answer anything like “I would go secretly leave a needed gift for a desperate stranger.” Just wouldn’t happen. Pretty much everybody would give an answer involving transgression of some moral code. So the question of the ring is an argument that people are, at their base, bad or amoral creatures. Human nature is bad, fundamentally self-interested and greedy.

We talked about this for a while, but ultimately I said “If absolutely everybody would behave the same way under certain conditions, then that can’t be the test of badness.” Even as I said it, I felt the raft of implication carried by those words, and at the same time felt astonished by the conviction I felt in saying it. I was expressing a core belief that I didn’t really know that I held. My friend said “Whoa, you could write a book unpacking what’s behind that sentence.” Well, maybe not a book, but I’d like to try to understand what I meant – sometimes I write to find out what I think.

A straightforward interpretation is the logical truism that a test is not a test if there is only one outcome. But that’s not all that I meant. It’s closer to restate the proposition as “What is universal to humanity cannot be bad.” But that is what I found astonishing, as this is pretty close to saying “All humans are inherently good.” And I have a hard time saying that about all people, not least because I’d have a hard time saying that about myself.

People are pretty shitty sometimes – I guess most people are shitty some of the time, and some people are shitty most of the time, and no one has never been shitty any time. Given this generally misanthropic view, I am surprised when I’m described as magnanimous, which has happened from time to time. A magnanimous person is supposed to believe the best of people, and my views of people are, well, mostly shitty. But now I realize that I actually do believe that everyone can be good, no matter what they’ve done. Unfortunately, this ersatz optimism only makes me continually disappointed to be let down by people, including myself. True misanthropes must be happy most of the time, as their beliefs are validated by constant evidence of human failing. Optimists about human nature can only be miserable at the pervasive failure of people to live up to their own best conception. But we can hang on to one thread of hope, missing from that catalogue of shittiness above: No one is shitty all of the time, which means that everyone can be good.

louie louie

There’s a package of personal skills that I’d call “being good at life” – some combination of being open-minded, open-hearted, honest and adventurous. Here I’m not trying to define exactly what’s in the package; I’m just saying such a thing exists, and you know this when you meet someone who is good at life. These people glow with contagious energy, you can feel it within a minute in their presence, and in half an hour you are imbued with some measure of their magic. They are so good at life that the irrepressible force of life overflows the boundaries of their bodies and penetrates into the lucky souls nearby.

This happens in the two-episode story arc completed this week on Louie, which is very close to entering my pantheon of favorite TV shows over the last decade (in chronological order: The Sopranos, Firefly, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men). If you don’t watch Louie CK’s brilliant show, and you don’t want to know what happens in it before you watch it, then you shouldn’t read the rest of this. Just go watch Louie – the first two seasons are on Netflix, the third is available on Amazon Instant Video.

Louie is a bit of a sad sack – divorced, out of shape, mid-forties, and haplessly looking for love. In the first episode of this story, he goes to a bookstore to buy something for his daughter. He turns down an offer of help from the first salesperson who inquires because he sees the other beside him, a librarian-sexy woman played by Parker Posey. He mumbles about finding a book about flowers for his daughter, and she really engages with the request, asking questions about his daughter and suggesting something that seems just right. It’s not a perfunctory execution of her task as a retail drone – she brings authentic humanity to a routine interaction. Louie’s days are filled with dross and here is a pure rivulet of gold.

Some time later, he’s back at the store panning for more, and she remembers him, her greeting lighting up his heart immediately. Finding a book for his other daughter, she draws on the shared personal history of being a girl just starting to grapple with life and femininity, and suggests another title that will surely be perfect. Truly infatuated now, Louie returns to the store a third time and stumbles out the best possible pitch for a date that can be made by an overweight balding older man to a vivacious younger woman. She says yes.

It’s wonderful … and in some ways it’s the high point of this relationship, as this moment is on average the high point of all possible relationships – the moment when both people think there might be something there, when the entire history is nothing but short sweet vignettes of warmth and attraction, when none of the best things have happened yet and all of them seem possible, when none of the worst things have happened yet and none of them seem plausible.

In the next episode, Louie picks her up at the bookstore at the end of her shift, and almost immediately, certainly inevitability, the reality of the person fills out differently than the fantasy of the dream. She actually is a wonderful person – vibrant, compassionate, authentic, funny and adventurous – and their date quickly becomes a classic New York journey, the city so alive that it’s almost like the third wheel in their evening, a meandering trawl through a bar, vintage clothing store, gourmet delicatessen and spectacular rooftop views. Parker Posey plays a woman who is just so damn good at life that it’s bursting from her seams, and the magic of her performance is how she shows the dark beauty of those seams and the fragile stitching that holds this woman together. She’s good at life because she has to be, because she’s learned to be, because it’s the only way she can survive.

Being good at life is a learned skill, no one is born this way. Some people learn from a blank slate, or even better from a foundation prepared well by a loving family and fortuitous circumstances. But some people learn in order to recover from misfortune, from illness or abuse or poverty or genetic disadvantage. For this group, being good at life is a survival skill, a necessity more than a blessing, medicine to cure a fatal condition.

you gotta love yourself

The final lesson in the four-for-forty series is the hoariest, hippyest, horriblest of them all. “Love yourself” is the basic rule of all personal development, so there’s no shortage of Internet advice on how to love yourself. To me, the advice has always come across as self-indulgent babble that may be good for crackhead pop and comic treatment, but it’s succored a generation of wimps who can’t hold down a job.

The first hundred times or so I heard “You gotta love yourself,” I thought: “No I don’t.  You don’t tell me what I gotta do.” Then I began to ask “Why?” and I finally heard a reason that made some sense to me.

Loving yourself requires accepting your faults, and accepting your faults gives you more options for how to react in any situation. That’s a quantifiable rationale, testable both in theory and in practice – and as a bonus the measurement also gives guidance on whether you’ve taken self-love too far. Here’s a simplified example:

Let’s say you receive a bad outcome that is at least partially based on something you did. Here is a count of your options for how to react –

  • Self-hate: Since you will blame yourself to the exclusion of other factors, you only have two choices: (1) rigorously apply yourself to skills improvement, even though it’s likely that no amount of improvement would have given a different result, or (2) drink enough to obliterate your self-hating identity.
  • Self-love, of the over-indulgent kind: Certainly the outcome wasn’t your fault, so your choices are (1) smugly wait for the next chance for the world to properly join you in your love of you, or (1) ignore any possible evidence that your actions contributed to failure. Yes, those are numbered the same because they are the same.
  • Goldilocks self-love, the kind where you love yourself just right: You can be clear-eyed about what really happened. You can apply yourself to change, you can recognize the factors that were out of your control, you can put the outcome out of your mind in good humor and good health. You can do all of these things and you probably will.

Basically, loving yourself just right gives you all of the options of the other two conditions, with the additional optionality that comes from not being ideologically compelled to react in a way that is harmful or indulgent. You gotta love yourself just right, because the alternatives are suboptimal. Sure, that’s a particularly dry and uninspiring way to put it, but what can I tell ya, I love this way because it’s mine.

we are all authors of our own lives

I’m not against self-affirmation on principle.  Many people benefit from empowering messages that remind them of their intrinsic worth.  However, that isn’t the sort of bromide that works with my particular chemistry. I want to understand what to do, not how to feel.  Even though I might enjoy hearing that I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me, that news doesn’t give me tactical guidance on how to live my life.

So when I tell you that “We are all authors of our own lives” – I don’t mean to trumpet the primacy of your own role in shaping your destiny, even though that’s a useful bit of affirmation.  I mean for you to think about the process of authorship, the task of writing a story from both facts and fantasy over many years.

Whether you realize it or not, you carry around a story in your head about who you are.  You draft, write and rewrite your internal explanation of the kind of person you are, the character you have, the things you will and will not do.  This work of self-conception is the greatest novel ever written, or at least it should be for you.

Early on, very little of your story is constrained by actual events, since you’re too young to have been in all of the situations you anticipate that you’ll experience.  You have the freedom of your imagination, and you write your story based on what you’ve seen in your family, friends and others in life and fiction.  You’ll imagine, for example, that you’re just like your dad, or not at all like your mom, or a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface, or a lot like Lindsey Lohan on Twitter.  Then as you grow older, your story becomes a lot more personalized to you, based more on your experiences and less on your aspirations.

You have years, maybe decades, to write your beautiful story of who you are, and then something happens. It may be one traumatic event, or a series of little events that are only clearly related in retrospect – but it’s something that happens that doesn’t fit into the story you’ve been spending your whole life on to that point. You thought you were a good guy, but then you did something that was undeniably bad.  You thought you were an honest woman, but then you’re confronted with your repeated pattern of little lies.

You race back to your story, flipping madly through the pages of the Book of You.  Who is this person in this story?  Who is this stranger living this life, holding this tattered book in shaky hands?  Can these possibly be the same person?  Faced with this disconnect between your life’s work as an author, and the actual facts of your life, you have two choices:  You can rewrite your story to fit the facts, or you can rewrite the facts to fit your story.

Perhaps this is the point where I’m supposed to say that the facts are sacrosanct, and your job as an author is to fit the story to the facts.  But no:  I said you were an author, I didn’t say you were a journalist, and I can’t presume to tell you what kind of story you’re writing. You have to make the choice that satisfies your art as the author of your own life.

Maybe you’ll just choose straightforward reporting, because you do want to match the story exactly to the facts.  Or you might be like Mark Twain, writing fiction truer than fact; or Jack Kerouac, making facts into truthful fiction.  I wouldn’t advise going full-on into fantasy, with complete disregard for any events from reality.  Not because it’s wrong, but because all of the best fantasies are rooted in something real.  As an author, you’re an artist, and art without truth is trivial, and you don’t want your life to be trivial.

Finally, be aware that we are all engaged in these acts of authorship.  You can get very far in understanding other people if you think about the story they’ve written in their own heads, and observe what they do with facts that don’t match the story.

many goods are incommensurable

There are many simple ways of saying things pretty similar to what I’m saying here, such as:

  • To each his own.
  • One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
  • It’s apples and oranges.
  • It’s all good.

But I don’t like these easy sayings, because it’s not all good – what I’m trying to get across is hard to understand and hard to live, and has little relation to the soft-headed permissiveness implied in those easy clichés.

This happens to be the only life lesson that I actually learned in a classroom as the direct subject of a lecture, and this lecture justified a year of college tuition all on its own.  “Incommensurability” is a simple enough concept – it just means that there are things that do not share a common standard of measurement, like the proverbial apples and oranges.

Apples aren’t oranges, could anything be simpler?  But it struck me as a thunderbolt to understand how this affects the search for the good life.  I’d always thought that the task of living a good life was largely about understanding the difference between good and bad.  Maybe I’ve got a moral compass that doesn’t have a reliable fix on true north, but that difference hasn’t always been obvious to me.

As life goes on, it has become easier to tell the difference between good and bad – or rather, it’s become harder to delude myself into believing that that there isn’t a difference or that I can’t see it.  Now I can see that choosing between good and bad was simply the entry-level exam for the good life.  The hard task of living a good life is to choose among things that are good that can’t be compared with one another.

Choosing among incommensurable goods is sad because you are by definition choosing not to do things that are good.  You know that the choices you make will sacrifice things that you would also like to have.  The good things you choose may be vastly outnumbered by the good things that you gave up.  And yet, your choices are a triumph that isn’t second-best to any other set of choices.

One of the great things about understanding this is that you won’t be limited, as many people are, to only having friends who have generally made the same moral choices that you have.  You’ll be able to see that others chose among the same set of incommensurable goods that you did, and even if they made different choices, they are still people who share a common sense of good with you.

Just to make sure that this isn’t interpreted with a mushy morality that I actually despise:  This doesn’t mean that everything and everyone is all good, it doesn’t mean that any set of choices is as good as any other, it doesn’t mean that you can be friends with anyone, it doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between good and bad.  It just means that many goods are incommensurable, and you should think carefully about what that means as you make your choices for a good life.

intelligence is a crutch

Being smart is a good thing, as any smart person will tell you more times than you care to hear. And being really smart is like some kind of weird superpower. If you’ve ever been at the head of your class, or the smartest person in the room, or even just the subject matter expert in conversation with the uninitiated, you know what it feels like to not only have every answer but anticipate every question – it almost seems like being able to bend space, time and reality to your will.

Now, maybe you’ve never had that superpower smartness – that’s also a good thing. Because that means you may have had a chance to observe really smart people at the height of their powers, glorying in their intelligence and in love with their knowledge of the world. And you may have achieved a striking insight that is beyond the understanding of many smart people, a special insight that seems to routinely escape the most massive intellect. This insight is painfully obvious to everyone else: Smart people suck.

Intelligence is a largely genetic trait that is also substantially influenced by environment and circumstance. In this way, it’s a lot like height. So before we talk more about smart people, let’s talk about tall people for a bit. Tall people get some pretty nice prizes from winning the genetic lottery. Tall people make more money and find more attractive mates. Height provides some advantage in many sports, and is a virtual requirement for success in some. So being tall is overall a good thing.

And here’s the point: Tall people know they’re lucky. They know that they have an advantage in life that others don’t have, and they know that they did very little to secure this advantage. They also know that to maximize their advantage, they have to add their own efforts – if they want to make the team, get the job, get the girl or guy – they have to eat right, work out, study hard, take care of their skin, hair and personality.

Not so with smart people. Even though smart people are generally aware of the genetic, environmental and circumstantial contributions to their intelligence, they rarely think of these as luck. Instead, smart people tend to think they’re better than other people because they’re smart, not because they’re lucky. And smart people often think that the world owes them something merely for being smart, as opposed to being diligent, sincere or personable. Smart people think that being smart should be enough, where tall people know that being tall is just a start.

The problem with intelligence is that it does, to some extent, make up for the absence of other admirable qualities. Smart people can get the same or better results as others even when they work less, care less and cooperate less. Intelligence is a crutch. And a smart person who leans on that crutch to the detriment of other important traits can become a monstrously malformed person. Intelligence is used worst when it’s used as a crutch to escape the hard work of being human.

four for forty

I’m four days from my fortieth birthday, and thinking hard about what I’ve learned over the past four decades. Over the next four days, I’m going to write about the four lessons that were hardest for me to learn – these are not necessarily the most important, or the most valuable, or the most insightful. They were just goddamn hard to learn, and in fact I’m still struggling to get them right.

People who give advice usually believe that some particular experience has given them an authority that others might want to regard seriously. That isn’t the case with me: although I’ve had many instructive experiences, I don’t think my historical record is what makes me qualified to give advice, and I don’t think everyone should take my advice seriously. Instead, what makes me qualified to give advice is that I am spectacularly bad at taking it.

I’ve had the great good fortune of having many wise people tell me many wise things, and my usual practice is to squander that good fortune by refusing to take even the best advice at face value. Instead, I question, I doubt, I criticize, I experiment, I delve down dark alleyways of impulse and instinct – and in the end I painfully find that I should have listened to the wisdom of my betters.

The problem with wise advice is that you have to have wisdom to appreciate it beforehand. And if you had the requisite wisdom in the first place, you wouldn’t need the advice so badly.  I never understand good advice until I’ve had the opportunity to fail to follow it. Only by living the bad consequences first-hand can I understand the underpinning that upholds solid wisdom.

Let’s hope that my misfortune is your bounty in these next four posts.

  1. Intelligence is a crutch.
  2. Many goods are incommensurable.
  3. We are all authors of our own lives.
  4. You gotta love yourself.