Societies and Biomes

A human microbiome (or “biome” for concision) is the “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.” That is, it’s the ecosystem of wee-beasties that make up a human being.

Each and every one of us is composed of human cells, but also of virus, bacteria, fungi, parasite, Archaea, protozoa, and a whole lot of other stuff you probably don’t want to think about while eating.

Though these microbiota only make up 1-3% of our total body mass, there are ten times as many of them as there are human cells in a human being. Which really makes one wonder about where we should draw the line between “us” and “them,” cell-wise.

Biomes evolve over time. As we’re exposed to new environments, new microbiota, new genetic materials, the complexity of our body’s ecosystem increases.

As anyone who’s taken a biology class can attest, a more complex ecosystem tends to be more rugged and sustainable. If a key predator dies off in a diverse ecosystem, there’s another there to step in and fill the niche. Complexity means the ecosystem as a whole is more likely to survive a disaster, even if some portion of it is killed off.

There are parallels between the micro and macro of many things, if you look closely. Atomic structures and galaxies, cellular walls and architecture; everything great and small is built using similar construction materials and blueprints (fundamental elements and math), so it makes sense that cultures around the world, alongside plants and animals and cells, would use similar patterns and forms.

We can see one such parallel between societies, an individual’s biome, and ecosystems as a whole.

The more diverse a society, the more sturdy and resilient it tends to be. Yes, there may be conflict at first, as the new component is integrated into the system. It can be tricky to determine if a bit of DNA or a given bacterium will fit well with the rest of your inner flora, and you may even get a little sick: your body may be hesitant to accept this strange newbie into the fold.

But once a new component is integrated, one’s body is more durable as a result. It becomes immune to more things and has access to a greater selection of potentially beneficial mutations. If some vital bodily component is attacked by an antagonistic outside force, we’re more likely to keep going; we’ve got backups, we’ve got something else that can fill that niche.

Societally, we often struggle against complexity. We want things to be predictable. Neutral. “Normal.” We want things to stay the same because that’s what we understand and have come to expect. Change is scary.

Homogeny in society is the same as homogeny in any other system, though. It can allow for a certain degree of predictability, but it also makes the entire network fragile.

One disease that impacts the local population.

One technological leap forward missed because of long-held belief systems to which everyone adheres.

One folkway that, over time, becomes gangrenous, though no one can see that it’s harmful because everyone accepts it as “the way things are.”

Outside perspectives are disruptive, and that makes us uncomfortable. But it’s these disruptions that make fresh perspectives valuable. They keep us growing, allow us to test our ideas, our beliefs, our views of the world. They enrich the soil with new organic matter and enrich thought with challenging frames of reference and interpretations.

Not every idea or change will be valuable to every society, but the capability to acknowledge, observe, entertain, and assess ideas, while still maintaining a steady, resilient foundation, is a good indication of how long-lasting and durable that society will be.

This means we can look across vast ideological chasms at unfamiliar people with unfamiliar ideas and know that because they are so foreign to us, because they approach life in such a different way, our species is more diverse and resilient. Humanity is stronger because of our differences.

Again, diversity as strength is a concept we see on the cellular level and in planet-straddling civilizations.

Consider what it might mean for you, at a size somewhere between these two extremes.

Consider, too, how you might help your society establish and maintain a good bill of health.

Also published on Medium.

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Big Picturing

I get a lot of emails from people asking me how to make money. How does one start a business? How does one sell a product?

Yes, there are things a person can do that makes earning money more likely.

But why? Why do these people want this money? What will they do with it?

When I ask people this question, I usually get something trite or borrowed from tech conference lingo.

“I want to change the world by providing (insert something here that probably won’t change the world, it will just earn them money).”

“I want to change the world by (insert something here that impacts other people who work in the tech industry, and who can afford to live in nice parts of big cities, but is irrelevant to anyone outside of that tiny circle).”

“I want to change the world by (insert clone of idea someone else already had here).”

Don’t get me wrong: I think there can be immense value, for someone, in any business idea.

In the hands of some people, money is a marvelous tool. It’s something that allows them to be more fulfilled and happy as an individual, and will perhaps even speed their pace toward a goal that they truly care about: a cause that will be furthered because they now wield more monetary influence.

But that’s not why people typically want to earn a bunch of money. The money is the goal, and how they get it is somewhat immaterial.

Yes, they’ll parrot the “We’re going to change the world by…” phrases that they’re supposed to say, but their actual goals end at “Earn a bunch of money.”

They’re betting that they’ll either be happy as soon as they’re wealthy, or they’ll be able to swing that bag of cash around until they hit something that makes life worth living.

This is why, more and more frequently, when people ask me how they can start up a business or earn more money, I tell them things that may, at first, seem off-topic.

I ask them to take a step back and figure out why they want the money, and how much they think they need to achieve their actual goal. I ask them if the business or product or service they’re considering is a means to a monetary end, or an end unto itself, inherently worth doing.

I tell them to read fiction. It helps you empathize with those outside of your default social group and can help you imagine possibilities beyond concrete reality.

I tell them to travel. Whether you experience new geographies and new cultures, or just try new things, new lifestyles, and new ways of thinking in your own backyard, expanding your horizons helps you see the world from novel perspectives, and those perspectives will help you figure out your ‘why’s.

I tell them to focus on being happy with what they have now. If you can achieve happiness before earning fat stacks of cash, you’ll be less likely to sacrifice the most important things in your life for more money (because you’re not desperate to find something that will fulfill you). You’ll also be more likely to spend that money wisely, and on things that actually matter to you, rather than swinging that cash-bag around, hoping to have someone else hand you prepackaged fulfillment.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with money, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing more of it, if doing so will help you become more you, and allow you to do more of what makes you feel alive. It’s also important to have enough so that you can keep a roof over your head and food on the table: I’m certainly not suggesting that the desire to have any money is a waste of time, particularly when it allows us to sustain the societal fundamentals.

Just make sure you know why you’re pursuing it. That you see the big picture and allow it to guide your steps.

Make sure that you’re not running in the same direction as everyone else, not because you want to get where they’re going, but because following the crowd is the easiest option when you have no idea where you want to be.

Also published on Medium.

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Practical Philosophy

Our beliefs are shaped by countless variables, from our families and friends, to our educational experiences and lifestyles, to genetics and chance.

But these beliefs are often more about theory than practice. One’s philosophy is essentially a label applied to oneself, and if one should fail to live up to this philosophy, the repercussions are minuscule or nonexistent.

Consider that a self-proclaimed pacifist can get into a fight every single day and still call themselves a pacifist: there are no philosophy police. If confronted about this misapplication of title to action they may claim to be an ‘aspiring pacifist,’ or maybe even a ‘bad pacifist,’ but they can still claim the philosophy either way.

One’s philosophy, then, is often more about intention than practice.

While living in Iceland, I learned a word that changed the way I view beliefs. Lífspeki is not just an adorable-sounding word (it’s pronounced “leaf-sh-pecky”), it’s also a way of looking our beliefs and the role they play in our lives.

Lífspeki is an Icelandic word that means ‘the practical philosophy by which you live your life, which you define through your actions.’

So while your philosophy is something you claim, your lífspeki is something you show. No aspirations: with everything that you do — every step, every word, every breath — you concretely demonstrate your beliefs.

I took a close look at my life after learning this word, to see what my actions were telling the world about my beliefs. I had already spent years recalibrating my life toward something more aligned with my convictions, but I was still doing things out of habit, out of laziness, out of ignorance, that didn’t align with my convictions. From this new lífspeki-catalyzed perspective, I could see which aspects of my life would need to be shifted into better alignment.

Theoretical philosophy is wonderful, because it allows us to explore horizons we haven’t yet reached in our own lives, and understand why others do the things they do.

Taking a practical approach to philosophy allows us to see whether the things we claim are our priorities are actually being prioritized, and where we’re failing to live in accordance with the ethics we claim to hold dear. This allows us to reach each new horizon in one piece, and happy for having made the journey.

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I’ve had people tell me they could probably be happy making just a million dollars a year. Maybe two would be better, but they think they could get by on a million.

We tend to subconsciously establish baselines for ourselves, and the idea is that if we have more than that baseline we’ll be happy. If we have less, we’ll be unfulfilled.

The natural progression of that thought is: I’m not happy, so perhaps I was wrong about my baseline. Perhaps it needs to be higher; I’m not happy because I’m not earning enough.

We make this leap of logic because so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis feed the drive for more.

If you have more monetary resources, you will be more fulfilled. You’ll be happy like the people on this billboard, you’ll be a good person like the protagonist in this movie, you’ll be a noble individual like the hard-working CEO of this company. We’re presented with storylines that propagate the idea that more equals better. A higher baseline means you have higher, more worthy standards.

Having a lower baseline, though, means you can be happy with less. It means you’ve found satisfaction in yourself, in the simple things in life, and anything beyond that is an added bonus.

If your baseline is a million dollars, anything less than that is a catastrophe.

If your baseline is $20,000, anything above that is luxurious living; your gateway to financial equilibrium is easier to access, and you can allow yourself to enjoy the benefits of earning more, rather than perceiving $40,000 or $100,000 or $800,000 as a failure; as being beneath you.

I know folks who make very little money, and for whom that’s more than enough.

I also know people who make millions of dollars, but for whom that money is just a nice little bonus: they were already happy. They were already complete. Take that wealth away, and they’re still having a blast. Add that wealth to such a person’s reality and they use it rationally, not as a life preserver, not as their only hope to maybe scavenge some happiness out of their day.

Rather than trying to raise our baselines, then, it’s perhaps a good idea to focus on keeping our baselines low so that we don’t limit ourselves. Figure out how to be satisfied with little, so that we might be even happier when we have more.

We set baselines for our professional status, our relationships, how and what we create, real estate, our dietary habits, the technology we use, and the clothing we wear. Deciding that our happiness is tethered to owning the right kind of gadget or eating at the right restaurant is just as debilitating as deciding we need to make a million dollars to be fulfilled; it sets a baseline that we cannot dip below without being miserable.

Take the time to be happy, regardless of your circumstances.

Once you’ve got that, all of life’s pleasures, life’s wonderful additions, become icing on an already amazing cake.

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Occasionally I’ll have someone tell me that they don’t want to learn more about a topic because that would kill the joy that topic brings them.

They don’t want to know anything about biology, for instance, because doing so might reduce the wonder they experience when perusing fields of flowers. They just want to look at the colors and shapes, and smell the wonderful fragrances.

They don’t want to understand sociology because it may make them cynical about their interactions with others, and they don’t want that to burden their good times with friends.

This is an understandable sentiment, because the more you learn about something, the more you bypass the outward-facing façade and see a starker, more detailed truth.

No longer are the vast variations found in flowers ‘magical’: now they’re logical variations brought about by genetic mutation and environmental influences. No longer are social movements inexplicable: instead they’re largely understandable, or at least comprehensible, and governed by a set of principles.

The desire to not understand is a desire born of conservative thinking, which means safe and secure thinking. I take pleasure in this feeling, and pulling back the veil may ruin that pleasure for me. Why would I risk it?

It’s true that ignorance about a topic can fuzz the edges in a comforting way: like applying a blurring, softening light to a family photo, a lot of the pimples and stray hairs disappear when you look at the world through a lens that doesn’t include the details.

This is a fear without legs, however. If you allow yourself to look for beauty at scale, whether the larger context, or at a higher magnification showing all the tiny details, you’ll find that there’s plenty to enjoy.

An excellent example of this is attraction in human beings. The ‘blurry photo’ way of looking at this is that it’s somehow magical and meant to be, while the more informed version takes into account biological and social conditions; it looks at the human microbiome and how one person’s physical ecosystem interacts with another’s.

Is it different? Yes.

The former approach is finding beauty in an idealized storyline, which fails to take into account data, but aligns with popular folklore. It’s not something you have to work to appreciate; it’s pre-packaged attraction.

The latter approach requires some mind-bending. It involves conceiving of oneself as a collection of human cells, fungi, viruses, bacteria, chemical impulses and mental plasticity, combined with the social structures in which we live: invisible sets of rules that we understand and accept, which guide our actions and activities.

That this collection of minuscule and complex variables conspired to make us interested in someone romantically, with all those little pieces falling into place and interacting with their biological and social equivalents, is a dance that’s as beautiful as it is complex. It’s an elaborate orchestral performance, compared to the easy-to-understand tapping of a finger on a table.

So long as we allow ourselves to appreciate it, the world is an infinitely complicated, infinitely gigantic, infinitely beautiful place. So long as we don’t romanticize ignorance over understanding, we can explore and enjoy, and never run out of things in which to take pleasure. We can look at the fuzzy picture and enjoy flowers because they’re flowers, and we can put things into finer focus when we want to fixate on the minutiae and geek out about the fact that flowers have an electrical field that attract bees.

Composers don’t limit themselves when learning about music. They love music, and a deeper understanding allows them to enjoy and make use of the craft at a deeper, more fundamental level. Their appreciation of music doesn’t disappear because of that knowledge, it increases. Because now they see the underlying structure and can enjoy the deeper architecture of that which they’re passion about, rather than just admiring the paint job.

Allow yourself to appreciate the world at scale. The more you know and understand, the more you’re capable of enjoying.

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It’s Easy

It’s easy to be snarky and dismissive of ideas that don’t align with your own.

It’s easy to preach to the choir, to rally the troops, to shout into an audience of people who already agree with you. To say all the things you know will reinforce their existing beliefs.

It’s easy and it’s often rewarded, with clicks and applause and shares. Because by being dismissive of ideas foreign to our own we’re reinforcing biases: we’re telling someone they’re right, and there’s nothing we like better than being right.

Far more difficult is opening ourselves up to ideas that evolved outside familiar ecosystems. Ideas grown within different societies and different cultures. Ideas that are the result of foreign life experiences.

Far more difficult is building bridges between disparate ideas and the people who have them, rather than blasting new chasms and building walls. It’s easy to declare someone wrong. It’s difficult to explain your ideas in such a way that they might listen. Harder still is opening yourself up so that you’re willing to listen to their ideas with an open mind.

It’s easier to find success by doubling down on what you know works: hardening your belief structure and turning up the contrast on your world-view so that the world is perceived as a crisp black-and-white.

It’s more rewarding, though, to embrace the grays; to allow for subtlety. To reach across intellectual chasms and interact with whomever takes your hand.

Because although the shortest route is defined by popular bias, society’s biases are changed over time by those who have the resolve to stand up and say, “Let’s look at the world in this new way, instead.”

It’s easy to wield ideas like permanent markers, frantically thickening the line we draw between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

It’s difficult to find the value in ‘them’ and their ideas. Harder still is presenting our own ideas in such a way that these ‘others’ feel comfortable thoughtfully considering them.

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The One

The following essay is an excerpt from my new book, Some Thoughts About Relationships.

From a very young age, many of us are told stories about The One: a mystical person who is placed on this planet for us and us alone. It’s our “hero’s journey” to find this individual, wherever they may be. If pop culture is to be believed, there will be a series of comedic situations and dramatic adventures that lead up to our finding them.

In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out there who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own. It also implies that everyone other than The One is just a stepping-stone toward grand fulfillment, which is a horrible way to approach relationships.

It’s understandable why this is such a popular storyline. Who doesn’t want to be the hero of the story? Who doesn’t want to believe that the imperfections we see in ourselves, and the bad hair days we experience, are just the buildup toward relationship bliss?

The concept of The One actually shares the same history as the concept of a “soul mate,” which comes from a tale written by Aristophanes, a comic playwright and contemporary of Plato. In this particular story, two-headed giants — some with both male and female genitalia, some with two sets of male equipment, and some with pairs of female parts — were sliced down the middle by a jealous Zeus and scattered to the wind. They were doomed forever after to explore the planet, seeking their “other half.”

As a metaphor, I get it. And the “soul mate” feeling is one I think most of us are familiar with. That vibe you get from someone who resonates with you is a connection that can be difficult to explain. It’s the sum of a huge collection of variables, mental and physical attraction key among them, which add up to something that feels almost metaphysical. It’s wonderful and memorable and often more than a little distracting.

To me, reducing something so remarkable to something as kitschy as “magic” or “fate” is borderline offensive. Those feelings are valuable; experiencing them can catalyze some of the most wonderful moments of our lives, and we’re supposed to just say, “yeah, it was bound to happen sooner or later”? Why not just celebrate the wonderful coincidences and randomness that brought such a person into your life, instead?

No, it’s not magic. And it’s not something that can only happen once. Recognizing the shallowness of The One complex allows us to see that we’re capable of loving more than a single person in our lifetime.

This is the crux of The One Policy. Why should we limit ourselves when we could be happier more of the time? Why should we be fated to endlessly pursue a fairy tale, when potential sources of actual emotional interaction and enjoyment are all around us? Why do we romanticize an idea that couldn’t be further from actual romance? An idea that keeps us from experiencing fulfillment, and which forces us to wonder about the legitimacy of our connections with other people when we’re fortunate enough to find them?

You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. Everyone else is a potential, hopefully wonderful, addition to that fated situation. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with in between.

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We’re all, every one of us, multifaceted and infinitely complex creatures. We are impossible to fully understand and just as difficult to describe in any cohesive, coherent way.

But we try. Oh how we try.

We megaphone who we are through blog posts and tweets. We curate images that appeal to our sensibilities. We share news items and think-pieces that reflect our views on a given issue.

It’s so easy these days to be someone; to be a public figure. The result of the myriad platforms and opportunities that provide this ease, though, is that we often hobble our own efforts at clear communication by attempting to express ourselves too completely, and all at once.

Imagine a stranger handing you a business card containing information about every single aspect of their lives. It would be impossible to know anything about that person from the hodge-podge of descriptors. The sheer bulk of information would render all of it moot.

‘Personal branding’ has become an almost laughably overused buzzword (like ‘synergy’ or ‘disruption’ or ‘content’) because over the years it’s become associated with creating a false veneer to trick people into buying a story you’re trying to impart about yourself. It’s come to mean telling others what they want to hear and using keywords to get a specific job or present an (often bland, inoffensive, and inaccurate) account of who you are to the world.

Branding, at its best, is telling a true story in the right order and in the right way so that others understand the basics and are sufficiently interested to want to know more; to want to turn the page and find out who else you are and what else you have to offer.

The real value of personal branding, then, is that it allows you to present as an iceberg, not a mountain.

It’s relatively easy to be a mountain. All you have to do is pour out every thought you’ve ever had, opinion you’ve ever held, and job you’ve ever done. Every hobby and aesthetic preference and story you have available to tell is poured out right there on the page.

Being an iceberg, though, requires more effort. It means sorting through everything — everything — and putting it in order. It means figuring out which pieces fit together, which are best presented when, and how you might present them so as to tell the proper story for the environment you’re in.

Iceberging is about being confident in serving up just an appetizer to explain what makes you, you, because you know it will be more palatable and more accurately express who you are, compared to lazily dumping a truckload of ingredients in front of anyone who might want to understand you better.

This isn’t to say that you’re limited to just one hook: you can rise up above the surface in as many spots as you like, making use of the same materials presented in different ways to showcase other aspects of who you are to a group of people who might be more responsive to that particular arrangement.

But regardless of the presentation, the person it represents should always be you, not a falsified, caricaturized version of you. A foot in the door isn’t worth a thing if there’s no one attached to it, and an iceberg cresting above the waves isn’t worth much if there’s nothing more beneath it.

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A common misperception about minimalism and simplicity is that if you have nothing, you’re living in accordance with these concepts. “I’ve never had much money,” some might say, “so I guess I’ve been a minimalist my whole life.”

It’s possible this is true, but minimalism is more about living intentionally than owning few things. I own very little because my passion is travel, and I don’t need much to pursue the lifestyle I enjoy. Carrying more actually hinders me, so owning little — while still possessing the things that allow me to do the work I love — is key.

For others, though, owning so little will be a true negative, not a positive. If having a full library of hardcover books is what sets you aflame with happiness and fulfillment, it doesn’t make much sense to live out of a backpack.

This focus on stuff, then, is a distraction from the point. And that statement is true in two senses:

First, our possessions distract us from calibrating ourselves toward what really makes us happy. That is, we focus on the accumulation of possessions rather than exerting the effort required to figure out what truly makes us happy, and spending our time, energy, and resources (including money) on those elements; be they possessions, relationships, experiences, or whatever else.

Second, this stuff-focus is often a distraction when we talk about minimalism, because it makes us think that by simply eliminating what we have in storage and owning half as many pairs of shoes we’ll be fulfilled.

This is possible — consuming less frees up time and energy to spend on actualization of other flavors — but it’s not an end unto itself. You could have all of your stuff stolen and experience nothing but loss. You could grow up impoverished and spend all your time thinking about accumulation, rather than self-realization.

It’s our focus and efforts in a holistic sense, then, that require recalibration. It’s not enough to simply decide to declutter your home; you have to make use of those newly liberated resources to declutter your mind, as well. It’s about making better use of what you have so that your resources are spent on the right things, not just owning little and then waiting for — hoping for — enlightenment.

The real power of minimalism is that it allows us to pull away from our latent stuff-focus so that we might align ourselves with self-actualization and happiness, instead.

If the path to simplicity is only leading to another type of stuff-focus — one that runs opposite but parallel to our previous fixation — we haven’t yet liberated ourselves from the cycle. All we’ve done is hop to another track on the same set of rails, which leaves the rest of our vast, spectacular internal and external world unexplored and under-utilized.

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Cabins are beautiful. They’re ubiquitous examples of simple architecture: a place for everything, everything in its place, and nothing that doesn’t need to be there. Some walls, a fireplace to keep warm, a bed to sleep in, and some kind of heated surface upon which to cook a basic meal from un-messed-with ingredients.

But as much as cabins have become a visible representation of the ‘simple life,’ not all of us want to live in cabins. Even those of us who crave that kind of simplicity, upon reflection, would probably prefer some other living situation, outside of periodic, sabbatical-esque jaunts.

It’s not the cabin that we crave, it’s the simplicity that such a space represents. We want fewer distractions and, in many ways, fewer options. When you’re living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, you cook what’s available and entertain yourself with introversion or basic social interactions with whomever else is there with you. You aren’t overwhelmed with ‘fear of missing out’ feelings or a complex social schedule. You aren’t burdened with decisions about which restaurant to eat at or which Netflix show to binge-watch.

The cabin, then, is merely a convenient visualization for something more expansive; a concept that’s less Pinterest-able and Instagram-able when made less specific. Something that’s harder to explain when it’s not attached to a piece of nostalgia and all the romance that entails.

Cabins aren’t the only visuals associated with the concept of simplicity. Brands that make clothes, prepare food, sell real estate, and lease cars use visuals that tap into this desire to be free of some of the modern world’s more pernicious complexities.

What they won’t tell you, of course, is that you needn’t buy a thing to achieve this goal. You needn’t wear a specific label, eat a certain type of food, or live in a certain kind of home.

All you have to do is take some time with yourself to figure out what sets you ablaze with happiness and fulfillment.

Identify the aspects of your life that make getting up in the morning worthwhile, and what you look forward to all week. Then focus on these things. Habitually eschew those activities, relationships, and acquisitions that unnecessarily complicate your life, weigh you down, or siphon away your happiness.

Cabins are beautiful, but even more magnificent is a self-aware person who is able to imbue any space, or lifestyle, with that same intentionality and significance.

This essay originally appeared in my newsletter.

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