Oxygen, not coffee

Sun Tzu said that “Morning energy is keen, midday energy slumps, evening energy recedes”. In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey outlines the quirk-full and often-mystic routines of famous creatives, scientists and thinkers—a lot of them describe the featured individual’s primary activity as taking place before the morning is over, and sometimes before the sun has even risen. Many productivity goo-roos advocate soft waldenponding in the mornings to minimise distraction and maximise focus and output.

All this ain’t new. Since ancient times we’ve known that the beginning of a day is the epitome of opportunity. Soon after awaking we are at our most alert, our most perceptive, our most creative, our most engaged. Why is that? Simple: circadian rhythm. We dance to the beat of an in-built, twenty-four hour timepiece that determines the functioning and sequencing of a vast number of physiological and psychological functions. It’s why we can sleep for eight hours and not wake up in a puddle of urine; it’s why our mental alertness and body temperature declines in the evening; it’s why we feel the need to sleep longer in the winter than the summer.

Our circadian rhythm is important. It is one of the primary determinants of what our mind and body does at different times during the day and night. But it is does not always have the final say. We can and do override its signals. Artificial lighting and heating; alarm clocks and other tech; medicines and drugs. All distort (or complement) our natural biological rhythms.

I have a personal interest in this. I work shifts. My sleep pattern and biological rhythms are all over the place and I’ve experienced the consequences of taking their distortion too far. Thanks to that, I have a pretty good sense of where the precipice between abyss and solid ground lies—life would be hell if I didn’t. I also have a few aides that I regularly call upon. I utilise black-out curtains, I take ZMA, I have processes for transitioning in and out of night hours, I have morning and evening routines, and I drink coffee. Bitter, dark, gorgeous, intoxicating coffee.

Coffee, and the caffeine it contains, wakes me from a stupor. It sharpens my senses. It starts the swirl of thought. To me, and to many others, it is synonymous with waking up and becoming human once again. There’s no mystique surrounding its function, though. Caffeine is nothing more than a central nervous stimulant. Which is the cause of much of my recent dismay—perhaps it’s not a good thing to rely upon? Perhaps the distortions it makes to my natural biological rhythms are, over the long term, harmful? Perhaps I should lessen how much I consume? Perhaps I should not consume it at all? And in the total absence of coffee and caffeine, what can I lean on to catapult myself into a higher state of wakefulness?

The answer is all around me, in the very air I breathe. Oxygen.


Years ago, I spent a few summers working at festivals, often doing ungodly hours—eight PM till eight AM was a good one. And after such a shift, I’d retire to my tent. A tent in the middle of a field, in the middle of a festival with tens of thousands of people, in the warmest months of the year. I’d go to sleep in the cool of morning and wake up a few hours later dripping in sweat and unable to breathe. In such a scenario, I’d peel off my sleeping bag, open my tent’s inner flap in a vain attempt to circulate some air, and lie back down, usually on my side so I had the maximum amount of skin not in contact with the ground. Then I’d look at my watch and groan—hours until I had to work again. Hours I knew I had to use to get some sleep.

It was hard. Until I learnt a trick.


The nervous system controls what state your body is in. Cleaved down the middle, you’re in either fight-or-flight mode or rest-and-digest mode. The former is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, a diversion of resources to the brain and to the muscles and organs required for intense physical activity, a quickening of inhalation and exhalation and a release of chemicals and hormones like adrenalin. The latter is associated with decreased heart rate and blood pressure, the sending of resources to the digestive system and restive organs, a slowed and steadied pattern of respiration, and the release of chemicals and hormones which promote rest, recovery and peace of mind. But here’s the thing: the arrow of causation goes both ways.

The nervous system initiates physiological and psychological functions, but the reverse is true, too. Feynmann’s observation that “you are the easiest person to fool” is more than a comment on epistemology—it’s the key to life without coffee. See, the trick I had learnt during my festival days was to fool myself, to fall asleep effortlessly by manipulating my pattern of breathing.

First, I would lie still and mentally search for and isolate an area of tension (the neck and shoulders are hotspots for me). Second, I’d slow my breathing, taking long, deep breaths in and out. Third, I would focus on deflating those areas as I exhaled, imagining myself dissolving and sinking into the very ground I was lying upon. The next moment it would be morning.

Such a trick has come in handy. I’ve used it to fall asleep in a bus shelter, on trains, on coaches, on planes, lying in odd positions in uncomfortable places, and—to my partner’s chagrin—less than five minutes after getting into bed. But falling asleep seems like the opposite of what I want to achieve, though. I’m seeking an alternative to caffeine that preserves the integrity of my biological rhythms but still offers the same neurological spike. But if I can manipulate my breathing to calm myself, can I not also manipulate my breathing to arouse myself?


Wim Hof is known as “the Iceman” for his ability to withstand and function amidst extremes of temperature. He’s ran a marathon in subzero conditions and in the heat of a desert. He’s been injected with an illness and consciously compelled his immune system to rise up and defend against it. He’s remained immersed in freezing water for hours. How? By an aeons more advanced variant of my fall-asleep-quick trick—he uses the mind to control the body. Like some spiritual monk from a fantasy trilogy, he displays conscious control of normally subconscious processes. Can I do the same when I need a pick-me-up? Theoretically, sure. If I can dampen nervous system activity with the breath I can definitely heighten it. So here’s the plan.

I have a few weeks over the holidays where I don’t have to work. That’s my window. As soon as I enter that window, I’m going cold turkey. No coffee. Instead, I’ll rely on oxygen, on breathing, on little and large lungfuls of air, to stimulate me. And to make it easier, I’ll have a specific breath-set that I fall back upon. This is, technically, a part of the Wim Hof method that I found online—a program that eases a person into Wim Hof’s teachings and incorporates cold exposure and exercise alongside breath manipulation—but it’ll work just as well on its own. First, I’ll get comfortable—I have a meditation mat and I’ll either sit in seiza or in the Burmese position. No lotuses around here. Then I’ll breathe as follows:

1) Thirty to forty quick, sharp and strong inhales and exhales.
2) A long and deep inhalation which is then held for ten to fifteen seconds.
3) A long and slow exhalation, which after completion is held for ten to fifteen seconds.
4) Repeat a total of three or four times.

In quickhand: Power-Inhale-Exhale.

That’ll be my alternative. That’ll be the thing that banishes grogginess and promotes awareness. That’ll be the thing which will allow me to survive a life without coffee.


Solutions to the problem of life

I know. I have a tendency to write and think about relatively bleak subject matter. So I want to change tack today and begin with something light and frothy, a simple if-this-then-that statement. Here it is: If it is true that, as the Buddha says, life is suffering, then having a child is one of the most inhumane things a person can do.

Logically, that statement seems to be consistent. But in reality, do I agree with it? The latter half, perhaps; the former, definitely. Life is suffering—it looks something like this for most people…

life graph

A few peaks and troughs sandwiched between a sometimes painful but mostly bearable monotony. The presence of suffering (acute and chronic) is, for me, not really the problem—it’s what to do about it. But I think I’m converging on an answer.


Bryan Kam, in a helpful review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, says:

“Peterson claims that “What you aim at determines what you see,” and this is true. He argues that not only goals but also tools become extensions to the self, and lenses through which one views the world (his views on tools are, as far as I can tell, straight from Heidegger). Yet he came to his own search for meaning first by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and later by a thorough investigation into the suffering in the Soviet Gulags and the Nazi concentration camps, later throwing a few school shootings into the mix (he has a preoccupation with Columbine). It is not that these topics should be excluded from one’s knowledge; education on these topics is certainly critical to preventing their occurrence in the future, and it is almost a moral obligation to learn about them. However this is hardly the place to start a search for meaning, much less to form one’s worldview or to find a set of rules by which to live one’s life. He tries to ground his philosophy in the reduction of suffering, and he is right that suffering teaches important lessons. Most of the world religions made this point two and a half thousand years ago. But his emphasis on suffering shows a rather fatalistic lack of hope for its amelioration. Buddhism’s first claim, as Peterson points out, is that life is suffering, but he totally ignores the fact that the three remaining Noble Truths are about how to understand suffering and how to end it. Peterson seems to stop at “Life is suffering, so let’s maybe try not to increase it,” which is not a particularly helpful position.”

Upon reading that, I saw myself. See, for the past few months, I’ve fixated on the first of the “Noble Truths” and neglected to continue on. Which is silly, because, as Bryan Kam says, the full set of Noble Truths are a playbook for dealing with suffering, a potential solution to the problem of life. They state that, first, life is suffering, second, that suffering comes from desire and aversion, third, that the cessation of suffering comes with the relinquishing of desire and fear, and fourth, that there is a definite path that all can walk to end suffering, should they so choose.

That’s all well and good, and if you wish to learn more about the Truths and the path laid out by them, there are countless tomes that discuss its ins-and-outs. That’s not what I wish to do here. I want to take another look at the responses to suffering.


My understanding of the response to suffering is dependent on four concepts.

First, the idea of difference-in-kind versus difference-in-degree. We cannot change life into something which is completely void of suffering. We can only modulate the degree of suffering for ourselves and others.

Second, consider this table from Venkatesh Rao’s Unflattening Hobbes.


Don’t worry about the contents, just note the groups down the axis: individual, pack, troop, tribe, and imagined community.

Third, immediacy of returns. Suffering can be alleviated immediately, in the present, or it can be mitigated in the future, further down the line, often at the expense of suffering in the present.

Fourth, there is a difference between the floor and the ceiling of suffering. The floor of suffering is the absolute worst case scenario—people without basic human needs like shelter, food, water and security, for example. The ceiling of suffering is the absolute best case—the state of life of those who have every advantage. Between the two is the average suffering the average human is subjected to.

These four concepts, taken together, lay out a few possible options for responding to the suffering inherent in life. I could choose to focus my actions on alleviating suffering for myself as an individual in the present. I could choose to focus my efforts on alleviating suffering for society as a whole sometime in the future by contributing to research efforts on green energy production. I could concentrate on alleviating suffering for my family by developing skills and building a career. I could commit myself to the effort to bring utilities that are considered an indisputable right in the West to the citizens of the world’s poorest countries. These are just a few of the options available.

Whatever you or I choose, know this: the reality of suffering is irrefutable—it makes up most of life and it is not going away anytime soon. But it doesn’t have to be a cause for despair; it can be a catalyst for action. Select the size of the group you want to affect, select the immediacy of expected returns, think about whether it raises the floor or the ceiling and if that is what you want to focus on, and get to work.

Outer mirrors inner

In the first of the Lord of the Rings film, Lady Galadriel says to Frodo that, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” Similarly, Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Now, consider these two quotes and compare them to the following from Energy: A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil:

“A key thing to note is that kinetic energy depends on the square of the object’s velocity: doubling the speed imparts four times more energy, tripling it nine times more – and hence at high speed, even small objects can become very dangerous. Tornado winds, in excess of 80 metres per second (nearly 290km/h) can drive featherweight pieces of straw into tree trunks; tiny space debris (a lost bolt) travelling at 8,000m/s could pierce the pressurised suit of a space-walking astronaut, and (although the risk has turned out to be very small indeed) a space vehicle can be damaged by a micrometeoroid travelling at 60,000m/s.”

Why are the above presented together? Well.

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered a lecture describing “the two cultures”, the splitting of intellectual activity into camps of the sciences and the humanities. He proposed that the split was harmful for progress in both arenas. Some agreed, some disagreed, and many debated the concept. I don’t care much about that disagreement, though. What I care about is that the humanities and the sciences appear to mirror one another. The inner truths of the former are reflected in the outer truths of the latter.

Smil implies that, in terms of capacity to cause damage, size is irrelevant if velocity is sufficiently extreme; Mead said that a few can change the world for the many. This is just one example of the convergence of the outer laws of the universe and the inner condition of humanity. Are there others? Yes.

Here’s one. The four laws of thermodynamics can be stated as follows:

– Zeroth law: If two thermodynamic systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third one, then they are in thermal equilibrium with no one.
– First law: Energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.
– Second law: The entropy of any isolated system always increases.
– Third law: The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero.

I’d be lying if I said I understood the above entirely. But I do understand the following from Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo. In a section called “Death by Entropy” he writes:

“Narrative-rational decision makers are mortal agents who have a fixed capacity for absorbing open-world information and battling entropy, before they succumb. They exhibit entropic aging. They climb the Freytag staircase and die. This idea of mortality of course, is philosophical rather than literal. I like to refer to this philosophy as thermodynamic theology.

You do not need to understand the laws of thermodynamics at a technical level to appreciate the core tenets of thermodynamic theology. For our needs, this irreverent (and surprisingly accurate) folk version of the laws is actually more appropriate. The three laws of thermodynamics are:

1. You cannot win.
2. You cannot break even.
3. You cannot quit the game.

Some add a zeroth law: you must play the game. There is no point in lamenting, like Kurt Vonnegut, “I didn’t ask to be born.” The calculative-rational rule of thumb offered by Stephen Covey, “win-win or no deal”, does not apply to life. You cannot opt out except through suicide.

Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman proposed a fourth law that can be stated as the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always more different ways to play.

The physical laws of thermodynamics have a theological equivalent; outer mirrors inner.

Another: Isaac Newton’s Third Law of classical mechanics states that for “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Does that not sound like the concept of “karma”? Another: an example of the principle of least action is that, in the words of Fermat, “light travels between two given points along the path of shortest time.” Humans, as well as light, also have a tendency to traverse two points using the shortest and easiest possible route. Another: the law of gravity is inexorable, and thus our bodies have evolved a capacity to function whilst directly opposing it. Is it not also true that we form ourselves in the negatives of our deepest fears? Those who most fear imprisonment are those who most energetically pursue independence. Those who most fear isolation and aloneness are those who exert the most effort to belong.

There are many, many more connections between laws of the physical universe and the condition of humanity that can be made. I won’t provide any more. But I will make this observation: progress in the outer realm can be unlocked in the inner realm, and vice versa.

For example, I’m no physicist. I’m mostly interested in practical philosophy, in the reality of the human condition and what we can do with it and about it. But perhaps I can gain more insight by an exploration of physics or chemistry or biology? Similarly, if I were a researcher in the hard sciences, perhaps I could unlock the next few steps along my path by absenting myself from my discipline and considering the nature of religion and belief?

I’ve talked before about the virtues of walking many paths at once. B.H. Liddell Hart said, in his biography of William Sherman:

“To the irresistibility of this progress Sherman’s flexibility contributed as much as his variability of direction. Moving on a wide and irregular front—with four, five or six columns, each covered by a cloud of foragers—if one was blocked, others would be pushing on.”

The same can be applied to the sciences and the humanities:

two cultures progress

There are immutable laws concerning the universe, just as there are immutable laws concerning human nature. The two are connected and we can use that link to leapfrog our way towards a greater understanding of our inner and outer world.

Goodbye and hello

To live is to die, as many before me have observed. Yet, due to humanity’s pronounced metacognitive abilities, we have both the ability and the desire to speculate, to question this most essential and inevitable dichotomies of existence, to wonder about a life divorced from death (the reverse being a logical impossibility), to ponder the concept of immortality through the vehicle of narrative.

I suspect I’m not the only person who counts TV Tropes as a valuable reference tool. It lists “immortality” as a “Super Trope” and says of it:

“Eternal life is ingrained in the collective human consciousness, having been present in literature and myths for as long as they’ve been around. Literally. The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest heroic epic known to the modern world) is, in large part, about the titular character’s search for a way to live forever.”

It then goes on to list some sub-tropes that relate to immortality:

– “Purpose-driven immortality” which involves “someone who is immortal to complete a purpose” that once fulfilled, results in the character’s dissolution.
– Tropes of “incomplete immortality”, such as Age Without Youth, Came Back Wrong and The Undead.
– “Retroactive immortality”, meaning a “character can die, but won’t stay dead.”
– “Biological immortality” which means a character is “immune to the ravages of time, although usually still mortal to physical injury.”

Of the last, the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth are an example. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel says to Frodo:

“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

The Elves, as a species, fought the “long defeat”, encountering death only in one of two ways: either through combat or via an overwhelming grief.

Now, that phrase, “the long defeat”, is curious. It signals a somewhat melancholy response to the curse of immortality. But changing its final word reveals a link between mortality and immortality, a thread that ties together the mortal beings we are and know and the immortal characters of narrative that we create and love to spend time with.

Invisible Planets is a collection of short stories by Hannu Rajaniemi. One of the stories, The Viper Blanket, contains the following passage:

“I held Marketta’s hand when she died. It was a warm hand, even after she stopped breathing and closed her eyes, and her grip did not have enough strength left for me to know the difference between life and death.
“Remember to pray,” she said, just before the final sleep. It was good that she went like that, sleeping, even though I couldn’t say goodbye. But we had been saying our goodbyes for many months already, so maybe they didn’t have to be said aloud.”

Not the “long defeat”, but the “long goodbye”. That is what Rajaniemi’s character had been saying to Marketta, and that is what the entirety of existence—both mortal and immortal—amounts to. Every act committed as part of a relationship stands a chance of being the last; every place we go is also a place we must eventually leave; every instant we experience is also an instant that must suffer dissolution. In isolation, every moment of a life is a goodbye; collectively, life is a prolonged farewell to what is and once was.

Yet it is not all gloom. What we see depends on how we look. The long goodbye is also a long hello. One moment’s departure is another moment’s arrival. Every inch of a person’s soul you get to know doesn’t just fade and become part of an intertwined past, it also becomes a prophecy of collaborative exploration in the future.

Immortality is a long defeat; mortality a decidedly quicker one. But both offer, at the same time, countless opportunities to savour what has been and immerse ourselves in what has yet to pass.

Personal offensive manoeuvres

I’ve been lucky enough to work and have many conversations with John Romkey, someone who knows what it means to be online and who understands the risks and advantages of such a position. Amongst the many things I have learnt from him, there is one that, lately, I’ve been coming back to: the different types of cyber-attacks an individual or an organisation may have to weather. The 2×2 below lists four possible types:

ambient active

Type 1 (ambient, intelligent) attacks could be scripts written to continuously target specific individuals or organisations, or a small subset of a population and their devices. For example, a bot that scours the web for potential botnet army recruits (read: vulnerable IoT devices). Type 2 (active, intelligent) attacks typically manifest as real-time, co-ordinated action against a specific entity. For example, when Anonymous or some other group goes after an individual or org with the aim of humiliation or dissipation of political power. Type 3 (ambient, dumb) attacks that are amateur and simplistic attempts at large scale action. If you run a WordPress site and see that someone (or something) has tried one thousand times to login to your account, chances are it’s a bot trying to brute-force its way in by trying every conceivable password. Type 4 (active, dumb) attacks are what you get when some teen sees an exploit or methodology on the net and tries to emulate it on a random person.

My understanding of these things is, admittedly, shallow and not exactly subtle. But I think it’s worth making preliminary excavations towards the roots of these ideas so that you’re not caught completely off-guard by unforeseen events. However, this matrix of online attacks (and the common defences deployed against them) has another use.


A while ago, Naval Ravikant—entrepreneur, investor, and startup sage—compiled a thread entitled, How to Get Rich (without getting lucky). In the thread he talked about the “permissionless leverage” that code and media creates. He said:

“Fortunes require leverage. Business leverage comes from capital, people, and products with no marginal cost of replication (code and media).

Capital means money. To raise money, apply your specific knowledge, with accountability, and show resulting good judgment.

Labor means people working for you. It’s the oldest and most fought-over form of leverage. Labor leverage will impress your parents, but don’t waste your life chasing it.

Capital and labor are permissioned leverage. Everyone is chasing capital, but someone has to give it to you. Everyone is trying to lead, but someone has to follow you.

Code and media are permissionless leverage. They’re the leverage behind the newly rich. You can create software and media that works for you while you sleep.

An army of robots is freely available – it’s just packed in data centers for heat and space efficiency. Use it.

If you can’t code, write books and blogs, record videos and podcasts.”

Where does the creation and circulation of “permissionless leverage” fit into the matrix above? Let’s switch the emphasis from a malicious actor attacking a person or entity with desirable assets (like wealth or specific intellectual property) to an individual playing offence to enhance his or her interests. What are his options for creating wealth? Again, there are four:

Type 1 manoeuvres (ambient, intelligent) involve one of two things. First, the creation of code and media, Naval’s “permissionless leverage”. Or, second, the creation of low-touch automated systems that generate value and capture it. In the latter case think of a lifestyle entrepreneur setting up a dropshipping business that requires minimal oversight each week, and only moderate intervention every month or two. Or think of a fullstack freelancer who creates a system that pulls leads to an info-product, sells it, upsells after the fact, and catapults the converted lead into a community of individuals united by a mutual interest.

Type 2 manoeuvres (active, intelligent) are one-offs, as opposed to recurring. The cultivation of relationships with people whose skillset you admire; forays into complex topics and domains; the negotiation of contracts and options; that sort of thing.

Type 3 manoeuvres (ambient, dumb) are recurring and easy to set up. For example, creating an automated email sequence for subscribers to a newsletter, or certain IFTTT formulas. They can also be particularly ineffective—think spam, brazen popups, auto-follows and obviously-scripted cold emails.

Type 4 manoeuvres (active, dumb) are mostly in the class of “showing up”. For example—and this is kind of cynical—I’ve been witness to people’s ability to gain influence in an organisation just by being in the right place all the time. Via presence, not contribution. Think of Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings. It is not his ability, insight, or power which gets him his stature, but his determined proximity to those things. Power via association, if you will. A remix of this is showing up for a friend. Not offering insightful observations or delivering wise counsel; just being there.


I used to read more about personal finance and financial independence (PF-FI as I dub it in my commons) than I do now, but one of the consistent themes I came across is that those who are wealthy—millionaires, for example—become so because they have multiple income streams. They get paid a salary, and they accrue speaking fees, and they get book royalties, and they collect share dividends, and they sit on a board of directors.

But with the above matrix in mind, I now see multiple income streams as a distribution amongst the four possible offensive manoeuvre types. But I don’t want to just say, “Spread your efforts amongst them”, and leave at it that. I want to look a bit closer,


In my reckoning, there are five ways to evaluate the value of the four types of manoeuvres…

– Ease of creation (investment required to get it going).
– Ease of maintenance (a.k.a. high touch or low touch).
– Short-term ROI.
– Long-term ROI.
– Risk (chance of irreversible negative consequences).

Let me give you an example. Let’s say I want to write a comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of cryptocurrencies. Such a guide would be classed as media, as permissionless leverage, so I am seeking to create something that is ambient and intelligent. Such a guide would not be easy to create: it would require a deep knowledge of fiat monetary systems and a fingertip feel of the cryptocurrency ecosystem and its technical foundations, as well as the ability to communicate that knowledge. But once created, it would require little maintenance. In terms of ROI, over the short-term it would be neglible (unless I had a previously established platform to release it to, that is), but over the long-term it could create relationships that have significant future value. It could lead to my gaining a seat at the table when new cryptocurrencies are evaluated—it could lead to a lot of things, actually. And how risky is it? Not very. I lose the time, attention, energy and money invested to create, publish and push it, but that’s about it. The downsides of such a project are pretty bounded.

Which leads to my final method of evaluation. There are four types of personal offensive manoeuvres, and there are five ways to go about evaluating them. But, their relative value is also modified by whether you are a Have or a Have-Not. I don’t mean this in the Marxist sense. My distinction is simpler than that. Haves have time, attention and energy to spare; Have-Nots, uh, don’t. The distinction between Have and Have-Not can be made in terms of monetary power, but I feel that is a bit crude. I prefer to focus on intangible assets.

An example. A Have-Not—someone with next to no time, attention, energy or money to spend—may stand to benefit immensely from the creation of permissionless leverage; but his status as a Have-Not makes the pursuit of that strategy unfeasible. So perhaps he would benefit more from an active-dumb approach that will pay off down the line?


The edifice of the framework above has cracks. The cultivation of a relationship with a maven is something I classify as an intelligent-active manoeuvre, but once it is cemented it becomes ambient—friends look out for friends, and professional acquaintances look out for opportunities to give those around them a leg up. After a while, it gives credit without requiring debits. Alongside that, keep in mind that “intelligent” and “dumb” are not synonymous with “effective” and “ineffective”. Recall that, in John Robb’s terms, complex systems are vulnerable to primitive attacks. Want to precipitate the collapse of an economy? A few determined individuals with several kilos of explosives can cause billions of dollars of disruption if their aim is true. The same goes for personal offensive manoeuvres. Sophisticated systems that generate immense value and capture a slice of it are great, but they’re not always feasible and/or necessary.

To die or not to die?

If I consult the raw data of my existence and begin to look for patterns, a few emerge, one of which is my consistent effort to up the ante.

When I worked in bars and restaurants, I didn’t want to work for normal bars and restaurants. I wanted to work for the best one in the area. I spent a few summers at different events and festivals doing security work. But I wasn’t happy in a stationary position manning a gate, or working in the pit of a stage pulling people out and stopping them from being squashed by crowds. I wanted to be on response teams, rushing around and dealing with emergencies and de-escalating conflicts. When I was involved with health and fitness, I thought teaching normal populations was easy, so I decided I wanted to teach athletes. Then I realised that athletes are the best kind of clients and changed my mind, deciding that working with regular people was the hardest thing to do and that I should do that instead. When I want to learn about a topic, I skip the introductory material and go straight for hard stuff, thinking that I can figure it out along the way and save myself some time.

In practically every domain of my life I’ve tried to do the hardest thing first. Most recently, I switched from writing daily to writing twice-weekly so that I had the time and space to take on more complex ideas with more rigour. But I began writing daily because I know it meant setting a pace that few could keep for long.

I’d narrated this pattern as an inability to not strive for excellence. I cast a favourable light on my person and counselled myself to find a way to deal with annoyingly relentless search for betterment.

But somewhere along the line it stopped being about outcomes at all. I read James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games and decided that playing finite games—for money, power, prestige, respect, status, etc.—was too easy. Infinite games are inexhaustible and thus represent a lifetime of challenge to continue playing. I should focus on these (see The floor and the canopy for an example), I should focus on making the process as interesting as possible instead of maximising the utility of outcomes. That began to seem like the hardest of pursuits. So I went after it.

Essentially, I eliminated, rather than upped, the ante and made the game unwinnable. But who wants to play an unwinnable game? Simple: someone who doesn’t want to die.


In his first book, Rene Girard said that “The ultimate meaning of desire is death…” I was puzzled, at first. But then I recalled Oscar Wilde’s “two tragedies”—to get and not to get what you desire. To not get what you desire is tragic for obvious reasons. But to get what you want? Why is that a tragedy? Quite simply, satisfaction of desire leads either to dissatisfaction or dissolution. Dissatisfaction because the reality of a desire attained never equals or surpasses the expectations we had originally envisioned. Dissolution because a desire that is attained is extinguished, and so leaves within us a void of energy where there used to be an animating drive.

The clever individual knows—sometimes via theorising, but mostly via practical experience—that desire is a suicidal impulse, capable only of decapitating, not empowering a person. Which leaves them with two options:

Option one: opt out of desire altogether. This is the path of Buddhism, and in a way, of mindfulness. It involves the patient awareness of desire and thus enables a practitioner to transcend it, to “watch it to death”, as they say.

Option two: ratchet desire up. As soon as something seems achievable, lift your gaze higher until you have fixed your sights on something unattainable given the constraints of your existence.

Option one, as you’d expect, is rarely taken. Most, me included, take option two. But why? I think it has to do with our relationship to death.

When it comes to desire, the question we all have to answer is, “To die or not to die?” We submit to death when we give desire no rein over us, or when we set ourselves eminently achievable goals. We rebel against death when we desire the titanic, the unreasonable, the ever-so-unachievable.

Which we choose is a spiritual choice, a choice based on philosophical assumptions, on aesthetic inclinations, and it is my experience that the majority of us choose life—that is, we choose a life with desire over one without it.

The toxic triangle of modernity

I said to a correspondent recently that it feels like I am perpetually walking on ice—whenever I seem to have found a philosophical, spiritual, psychological or epistemological safe spot, I take a few more steps and fall into the freezing waters of uncertainty and doubt once again. And because my intellectual awakening was brought on by the sweet goodness of books and blogs about self-improvement and productivity, Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity functioned as an unexpected dunk into some Nordic fjord.

The book actually turned out to be one of the best I’ve read in the last year or so, which is saying a lot as I’ve had the fortune of being exposed to some absolute crackers. It discusses developments in our relationships to things like emancipation, work, community and what we think about when we think about time and space. But the two things that most interest me about it are its discussion of the concepts of individualism and impotence, which, taken together with the idea of an over-emphasis on normative models, form what I have termed the “toxic triangle of modernity”.

toxic triangle of modernity


Let’s begin with the first concept: the over-emphasis on the normative. I mentioned it recently in Removing the normative, but I’d like to revisit it here.

The definition of “normative” I have in mind here is something like, “An ideal but unachievable model”. For example, in his Letters Seneca advises:

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”

The idea is that by choosing some great man or woman as a model and holding them in mind, you can begin to pull yourself up and improve the quality of your words, deeds and thoughts. It’s a shoot-for-the-moon-but-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-amongst-the-stars kind of thing. But there is an insidious side to it.

If a model is taken with the assumption that the model’s state is achievable by the imitator, then the imitator is setting themselves up for a world of pain and misery. It’s the difference between aspiration and ambition. Aspiring to live and learn with the same joy as a Richard Feynman is very different, in process and outcome, from having the ambition to be like Richard Feynman. The former is a selective imitation and application of his most positive traits in the context of your own life; the latter is a slavish attempt to solve—or skirt around—your own problems by becoming someone else.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the over-emphasis on the normative in our current cultural climate is to turn to Instagram. We all know the schtick: social media is the highlight reel of someone’s life, it is not a faithful representation, etc. etc.. Yet, we still fall for it and make the comparison between so-and-so’s “best life” and our own. The latter seems utterly enthralling and the former is exquisitely mundane. The digital nomad; the big-city yogi; the wildlife photographer; the van dweller; the artisan; the happy family—every aspect of our life and being is represented on social media and every aspect is illuminated with the most perfect combination of light and framing. Is it any wonder that we, who live a normal live in an often grey world, spend a lot of time feeling like shit?


The cult of individualism demands independence and self-reliance from all its acolytes. It’s motto could well be Henley’s, “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” It preaches the idea that all problems encountered by the individual can be solved by the individual. Conversely, that means that any problem’s perpetuation is the fault of the individual. As Bauman says:

“..if they fall ill, it is assumed that this has happened because they were not resolute and industrious enough in following their health regime; if they stay unemployed, it is because they failed to learn the skills of gaining an interview, or because they did not try hard enough to find a job or because they are, purely and simply, work-shy; if they are not sure about their career prospects and agonise about their future, it is because they are not good enough at winning friends and influencing people and failed to learn and master, as they should have done, the arts of self-expression and impressing others. This is, at any rate, what they are told these days to be the case, and what they have come to believe, so that they now behave as if this was, indeed, the truth of the matter. As Beck aptly and poignantly puts it, ‘how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions’. Risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.”

Like the women who is raped “because” she had the audacity to wear “provocative” clothing, or the Jewish concentration camp inmates who were seen as worthy of detention and destruction by neighbouring civilians because of their abject condition, the individual is the one ultimately responsible for his or her inability to vault over systemically-produced obstacles. All success is individually generated, as is all failure.

Liquid Modernity contains a few examples of the inhumanity of the cult of individualism, but the most striking, and the one I’ll end this section with, came in the domain of health and fitness. Bauman quotes Jane Fonda:

“ ‘I like to think a lot of my body is my own doing and my own blood and guts. It’s my responsibility.’ Fonda’s message for every woman is to treat her body as her own possession (my blood, my guts), her own product (my own doing) and above all, her own responsibility. To sustain and reinforce the postmodern amour de soi, she invokes (alongside the consumer tendency to self-identify through possessions) the memory of a very pre-postmodern – in fact more pre-modern than modern – instinct of workmanship: the product of my work is as good as (and no better than) the skills, attention and care which I invest in its production. Whatever the results, I have no one else to praise or to blame, as the case may be. The obverse side of the message is also unambiguous, even if not spelled out with similar clarity: you owe your body thought and care, and should you neglect that duty you should feel guilty and ashamed. Imperfections of your body are your guilt and your shame. But the redemption of sins is in the hands of the sinner, and in his or her hands alone.”


First, we are presented with an abundance of normative models. One can go on Instagram and instantly stumble upon well-meaning people attempting to “empower” their followers by teaching them ways to improve their bodies, but who at the same time are manufacturing a deep dissatisfaction in the minds of their followers due to the follower’s inability to ever achieve that normative state.

Second, we are persuaded that all failures are individual failures. A person gets their just desert. The ill, the unemployed, the homeless, the unhealthy, the impoverished, the less-than-best; they have failed themselves.

It is sometimes possible to move beyond the constraints normative models and the school of individualism impose. After all, we’ve all heard stories of incredible transformations, of people turning their lives around, of those who accomplish something with nothing through the virtue of sheer will. But those are the exception, and will become increasingly so once we factor in the third ingredient: impotence, either real or perceived. The best lens through which to view this idea is the idea of climate change.

In a remarkable thread David Roberts comes to a conclusion about our approach to climate change. Some choice excerpts:

“We have the tech we need for sustainability. The economics are aligned. The policy tools are tested and available. Everything is queued up! The only thing missing, the final detail, the last item on the checklist, is … leadership!

“We could solve this affordably & to mutual benefit” is true of almost *every* social dysfunction. I mean, we have the money & policy tools to eliminate poverty. It would generate enormous collective benefit. But we don’t. Why not? B/c we lack … political will!

To sum up: yes, we get it! We have to tools we need to transition to sustainability. It makes economic sense. We just need political will. Message received.”

Now, add to this one of Bauman’s observations:

“The most poignant yet the least answerable question of our times of liquid modernity is not ‘What is to be done?’ (in order to make the world better or happier), but ‘Who is going to do it?’ ”

Knowing what to do but being unable to do it—that is the definition of impotence. And it is a state surprisingly akin to much of modern life. Circling back to health and fitness: it’s easy to get information about what we should eat and what sort of activities we should engage in to remain healthy. There’s millions of sources. Which is the problem. We have the information, and a lot of it conflicts, so we don’t know what to do with it.


This is what you should look like, but it’s your fault that you don’t and there’s nothing you can do to change your body.

Work should be meaningful, fun and wealth-generating, but you haven’t developed the skills to get such a job and it will take the rest of your life to do so.

The best relationships are deep and intimate and long-lasting, but all your relationships are rocky and marred with implicit ruptures that you can never hope to repair or bridge because you’re a broken person.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Over-emphasis on the normative, the cult of individualism, and the actual or perceived impotence of the modern person when confronting personal, community or societal issues are, alone, bad news. Together? They are utterly toxic. They feed one another and perpetuate a society where everyone is ashamed of their non-normative state, where everyone feels responsible for problems outside of their control, and where everyone is terrorised by a real or perceived inability to do what they know they must.


I’ve painted a particularly grim picture. However, there is hope, especially when recalling that toxicity is dependent not on the substance itself, but on the amount of it that is consumed. With that in mind I would say that:

1) Normative models are useful when used as the basis for aspiration, not ambition.
2) Individualism is virtuous when limited to the domain and scale of what one person can reasonably hope to accomplish.
3) Impotence has a function, particularly on the societal scale, of checking reckless action and ensuring best results. It slows the decision-making and action-taking processes with the aim of producing sustainable positive effects.

The dose makes the poison, but who will say when enough becomes too much? When normative models have taken over, when the individual has become the sovereign of our times, and when the status quo is one of well-meaning people who know what to do but not how to do it, what will be our response?