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The Attention Span. "Death Wish."

Dark times require clear-eyed examination of serious problems. I have never encountered a mistake that's worse than the one I’m going to discuss today. It is the source of almost every kind of evil in the world.

“Death Wish.”

[10 minute read]

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

- Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park.

Source: Getty Images

If you’re interested in understanding the world, a legend that’s been around for tens of thousands of years is probably more valuable than a “study” from last year that won’t replicate.

There’s one ubiquitous story structure that’s an absolutely dire warning. It describes a mistake that obliterates life itself. I know because it utterly destroyed mine for a very long time.

The “be careful what you wish for myth” will be familiar to anyone who has seen Disney’s Aladdin. The Genie grants Aladdin his wishes, but they always result in unintended negative consequences. In order to woo princess Jasmine he wishes to be the wealthy and powerful Prince Ali Ababwa. But instead she finds him arrogant and inauthentic. The universal feature of the myth is disturbing the broad flow of the world with narrow-minded individual desires.

But it gets worse. In attempting to influence the flow of life, we risk unintentionally killing it. Communist command economies have provided so many monstrously catastrophic examples. Mao’s “smash sparrows” campaign in 1958 focused on the elimination of pests that consumed grain. The sparrow population in China was driven to near extinction. Without predators to eat them, the locust population exploded. This significantly contributed to the Great Chinese Famine that killed somewhere between fifteen and fifty five million people. It’s one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history. Be careful what you wish for.

It would be easier to scoff at these horrific historical errors if we didn’t keep making them today. I’m intrigued to see how the current plan to release two million genetically modified mosquitoes in California and Florida goes.

Globalization’s weakness for centralizing production means Russia and Ukraine currently supply 29% of all wheat exports (source: American Farm Bureau). The extremely robust link between food insecurity and civil unrest now puts revolution and famine back on the table for the developing world.

But there has always been a mysterious and disturbing trade-off between control and life. The Aztecs sacrificed as many as two hundred thousand people a year to try to please the gods and gain influence over nature. The despairing tears shed by children on the way to the altar were believed to appeal to the rain god for a good harvest. Moloch asks for everything you value most in return for power.

Even today we still appear ignorant of the worst effects of control-obsessed modern science. Francis Bacon’s definition of science is:

“The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

Paul Kingsnorth has pointed out that’s pretty much identical to the occultist Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic. The dangerous kind.

“The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.”

The warning is that our “will” is likely far, far too limited to know how to intervene responsibly in infinitely complicated living systems. Science seems to have neglected to give us an appreciation for the dangers of science itself. We’re trying to control ever-greater proportions of living systems, then watching as those control structures buckle. Moreover, the defining trend of the 2020's is an accelerated collision between the real and virtual worlds. It’s far easier than it’s ever been to formulate extremely bad ideas in the deceptive isolation of digital echo chambers. Earlier this month, researchers deliberately reversed their A.I. for drug discovery to instead target toxicity and bioactivity. In just six hours it had generated forty thousand models of chemical warfare agents and new bioweapons. Their commentary is chillingly relevant:

“We were vaguely aware of security concerns around work with pathogens or toxic chemicals, but that did not relate to us; we primarily operate in a virtual setting….
… By going as close as we dared, we have still crossed a grey moral boundary, demonstrating that it is possible to design virtual potential toxic molecules without much in the way of effort, time or computational resources. We can easily erase the thousands of molecules we created, but we cannot delete the knowledge of how to recreate them.”

As all great ideas are relevant at multiple levels, the application to ourselves as individuals is a profound warning.

At the end of Aladdin, the sinister intellectual Jafar wishes for “phenomenal cosmic power!” but in return he gets bound to the servitude of the lamp with “itty-bitty living space.” This is the isolated tyrant sitting at the end of a long table bombing women and children simply for “power” over territory. It’s the CEO surrounded by yes-men as his company crumbles. The lonely billionaire in an empty mansion. It’s King Midas wishing for wealth and turning his own daughter to gold.

The critical error is letting what you think you want get in the way of what’s actually unfolding. As I explained in a recent podcast with Frederik Gieschen, I tried to pivot my career in midlife and made precisely this mistake. My focus was on doing something fundamentally “meaningful.” After witnessing a great deal of squandered human potential, I wanted to help “stuck” people. I variously focused on becoming a social worker, recruiter, hospice nurse, and psychologist. But I wasn’t good at any of them, nor was I especially gripped by the content. The need for meaning became an abstract obsession, and I was paralyzed for literally years. I had over-determined my own direction. Imposed my inflexible will at the exact time I needed to be fluid. In wanting to help stuck people, I myself became completely stuck. It resulted in depression, despair, and profound suffering for me and my family.

What do you do differently?

“The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and subtle will prevail”- The Tao Te Ching

The shorthand here is pretty simple. The world is now blowing up in all sorts of unexpected ways because we’ve put artificially rigid structures on natural systems. Businesses or individuals that want to survive need to mimic nature. I believe these patterns are universal and relevant, so learning about them now is a very good use of time (see article below).

If you seek control, prepare to sacrifice life. If you seek life, prepare to sacrifice control. The trick, as always, is getting the balance of control, with a permanent tilt towards life.

Carl Jung’s completely bonkers Red Book has one of the most interesting and counterintuitive insights I’ve ever encountered. He talks about the dangers of pursuing abstract goals in life.

“But how do I create my charioteer? Or do I want to be my own charioteer? I can guide myself only with will and intention. But will and intention are simply part of myself. Consequently they are insufficient to express my wholeness. Intention is what I can foresee, and willing is to want a foreseen goal. But where do I find the goal? I take it from what is presently known to me. Thus I set the present in place of the future. In this manner though, I cannot reach the future, I artificially produce a constant present.
Everything that would like to break into this present strikes me as a disturbance, and I seek to drive it away so that my intention survives. Thus I close off the progress of life. But how can I be my own charioteer without will and intention? Therefore a wise man does not want to be a charioteer, for he knows that will and intention certainly attain goals but disturb the becoming of the future.”

If you have the “will and intention” to be a Managing Director by thirty five, any superior opportunity that flows in your direction that doesn’t support that fixed goal will get disregarded. As a result, you risk achieving your limited goal, reaching a steep fitness peak, but with no idea what to do next. Be careful what you wish for.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s excellent book, Balancing Heaven and Earth, talks about the “slender threads.” These are subtle environmental signals with “greater intelligence and wisdom than our scrambling egos can ever attain.” He suggests giving our limited egos responsibility for small things like habits. But for the big choices, trust the slender threads. The more our will tries to grab the rudder of our boats, the more we risk sailing into the wind.

The “what you wish for myths” with happy endings all tend to end in the same way: the hero lets go by becoming who they truly are. That probably seems clichéd, but it’s actually quite profound. My work on the Hero’s Journey confirms that the individual who becomes aligned with the system is the ultimate goal of life. You do it by pursuing things that make you feel alive. Pinocchio merely wished “to be a real boy,” to be truly himself. That seems like an ideal goal. The necessary alternative is that if you target abstract, unreal, dead things, that will also become the character of your life.

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

-Joseph Campbell

Related reading.

  • Read. The Cobra Effect (Part 2) by Paul Orlando (13 minute read).
  • Why Read. The Unintended Consequences blog has over 100 different articles on this critical concept. I first encountered Paul’s fascinating work on the (topical?) ideological subversion tactics of Soviet Russia. This particular article takes insightful issue with the general perception that the world is getting inexorably safer.
  • o “The impact of almost instantaneous events like the atomic bombings stand out because they were not possible in the past. But if the U.S. had developed the bombs and never dropped them, their potential impact would still exist. Think of how many new ways there are to destroy life on this planet, by high-impact actions from militaries, microbes, and economic systems. The way that Pinker and others look at the question of safety ignores the whole system. The greater connectedness of many parts of the world mean that, while the day to day trend may currently be toward safety, the potential for great disruptions to that safety can impact many more people.”
  • Read: Ecology and Community by Fritjof Capra (24 minute read).
  • Why read. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that William Oliver at In Practise has done great work on “quality” in companies. He pointed me towards Fritjof Capra’s work. I believe this is such a great use of time because it’s incredibly relevant to today’s disruptions AND the principles are universal across natural systems.
  • “The principles of organization of nature (Capra, A Systems View of Life)
  • Interdependence: the success of the whole community depends on the success of its members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the whole community. Understanding ecological interdependence means understanding relationships.
  • Cyclicality: communities and organisms have evolved over billions of years continually using and recycling the same molecules of air, water, and minerals. The ecosystem’s feedback loops are the pathways along which nutrients are continually recycled.
  • Partnership: an essential characteristic of sustainable communities. “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” Sagan
  • Diversity: the more diverse the ecosystem, the more complex the network is, the richer the pattern of interconnections, the more resilient it will be. The complexity of a network is a consequence of its biodiversity. In human communities, a diverse community is a resilient community capable of adapting to changing situations. That said, diversity is a strategic advantage only if the community is interconnected in a sustained web of relationships; if the community is fragmented into isolated groups, diversity can easily be a source of friction.
  • Flexibility: Lack of flexibility manifests itself as stress. While temporary stress is an essential aspect of life, prolonged stress is harmful and destructive to the system. “These considerations lead to the important realization that managing a social system means finding the optimal values for the system's variables. If one tries to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing it, this will invariably damage the system as a whole.”

To those of you who like these recommendations, here’s an AMAZING DJ set from Nora En Pure in Arnensee, Switzerland. Massive.

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