I’ve recently re-read Venkatesh Rao’s Life Spirit Distillation post. I encourage you to read it in full, but here’s a snapshot:

“What does lead to progressive intensification is recognizing the growing serendipity in the environment, and rapidly increasing potential for more imaginative solutions to life challenges, with more intense and unexpected rebirths, all around. It is about living life in a way that you might run into versions of yourself you didn’t know were possible.”

Rao’s vision of life intensification and spirit distillation is concerned with becoming, unapologetically and unashamedly, you (crucially, what that means remain unknown until becoming has occurred).

At the same time, I’ve also been engaged in an evaluation of my professional capabilities. Specifically, I’ve been trying to get a read for my product expertise and figure out what I need to work on based on where I am and where I want to go. I’ve done this (partially) using three product-specific frameworks:

  • Reforge’s product specialisations (core, growth, platform, innovation)
  • Ravi Mehta’s product competencies (product execution and strategy, customer insight, influencing people)
  • My own lens, ECPM (business analysis, software dev/eng, UI/UX, project management, and interfacing/integrating)

Managing growth using these frameworks is the inverse of the approach described by Venkatesh above. It’s about evaluating dominant patterns in a domain and using the resulting map (or compass) as a guide to the terrain. It’s been said that holding two contradicting ideas in one’s head at the same time is a mark of intelligence. I think that intensifying and distilling one’s life spirit while simultaneously competing aggressively with others in a known, somewhat legible domain is a similarly intelligent move.

Tangible benefits from being a high-performing agent in an understood domain can accrue at the same time as the more intangible benefits that result from, to meme-ify it, “living your best life”. They form a mutually beneficial, reinforcing cycle that allows one to use the benefits from being a legible entity to become increasingly illegible along some other critical dimensions. Ideally, this cycle skews—in the long term—to favour life intensification instead of legibility.

The question is, “How does one do it?” There’s no easy answer, unfortunately. But across all the possible answers there is a unifying characteristic: tension.

If the above, opposing initiatives are characterised as…

  • Standing out (whilst still fitting in)
  • Fitting in (whilst still standing out)

…then it’s readily apparent that trying to do both these things at the same time is difficult and time consuming. But it seems to be (at least to me) more advantageous than just doing either-or, or alternating between the two. My evidence is pretty light, I’ll admit. But here’s one piece: this is what Ido Portal says about striving for two opposing goals:

“One temporary yet pragmatic solution I’ve found for myself over the years is pursuing two somewhat opposing simple goals from the start.

Instead of crashing into the wall, paying with injury, stagnation, loss of momentum, interest and function, such a double direction pursuit, especially when standing on opposite sides of a spectrum, will resolve many of these issues from developing, especially prematurely.

At initial stages of the practice such a double direction will definitely slow things down yet in later stages it will prove itself very valuable as it enables you to traverse various plateaus that arise due to acute disruption of homeostasis.

At the elite and final stages of the practice, the dual direction will once again block the practitioner from achieving the ultimate capacity but at the same time will protect you from paying the ultimate price that the hyper specialized will often pay.”

In the domain of movement, this could manifest as striving for increasing strength at the same time as increasing mobility. In my personal situation described at the head of this post, this means levelling up my product competencies whilst simultaneously exploring and executing on my other interests (hint: new fiction incoming).

I guess it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy based on one’s perception of this tension. On one hand, life force can be viewed as a zero-sum entity. Spread between two opposing goals, one can imagine feeling—as Bilbo Baggins says—like “butter scraped over too much bread.”

On the other hand, life force can be viewed as a non-zero-sum entity. This perspective not only allows for the intensification and distillation of one’s life force—an increase in its potency. It also allows for the idea that spreading one’s buttery life force over a lot of bread increases its volume. Spreading the butter creates more butter.

There need not be a tradeoff between quality and quantity when it comes to life force. We don’t have to suffer a reduction in total available life force to compensate for gains in life force quality. Life force can grow along both dimensions simultaneously.

It’s similar to a person’s (or an organisation’s) capacity for execution. Energy begets energy; execution begets execution; entities that get things done see an increase in their ability to get future things done (and often to a higher standard). There’s a similar phenomenon for how we approach our life force: intensification, as Rao advocates for, actually results in life force multiplication, creating a powerful feedback loop that takes one towards an indeterminate fate.