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The Attention Span. "Hidden Forces of Radical Hope."

After weeks of tragedy and relentless doomscrolling, I’m compelled to make the strange case for radical hope.

If this is the only thing I write that anyone ever reads, I think I'll be cool with that.

“Sheep with Nukes and Radical Hope.”

[10 minute read.]

“What makes this hope radical is that it is directed towards a future goodness than transcends our current ability to understand what it is.”

- Jonathan Lear

Source: Getty Images

The author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, once memorably described humanity as "sheep with nuclear weapons.”

We have been catapulted from a relatively modest place in the middle of the food chain to the top in a millisecond of geological time. We have godlike technology but without the chill of an alpha lion lounging in the savannah. With UFO sightings allegedly clustering around nuclear weapons, I have a darkly comic image of aliens looking down at us right now, open-mouthed in horror.

One overriding impression from Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s recent masterpiece The Matter with Things is that the imbalance in our brains toward the left hemisphere has turned us into overly-paranoid predators. Our left hemisphere is concerned with manipulation, power, control, and competition. But it is ignorant of the whole picture, and it lies when confused. This has led to a world of “Moloch.” Perpetual arms-races where existential risk is coupled with exponential technologies.

This concept all seemed distant and theoretical until a few weeks ago. My only question had been if the storm, our dark night, was behind us or ahead of us.

But this is not another piece diagnosing doom. It is about the case for optimism. An optimism that surely sounds irrelevant and irrational. But recall that hope was left at the bottom of Pandora’s Box.

Our right hemisphere controls our exploratory attention, what our interests are drawn to, what we find resonant. Our unconscious mind is constantly assessing our environment and trying to find important patterns. As we’re walking through the jungle, we’re always scanning the foliage for danger. If our unconscious registers the outline of a tiger, our conscious attention is suddenly gripped by it. If it turns out to be an optical illusion caused by branches, we quickly move on.

Low-quality content grabs our attention, but only substantial content can hold it. In order for something to hold your attention for a long period of time, it needs to be meaningful. The narrative pattern needs to communicate information that’s valuable, often from an evolutionary perspective. Anyone who has a toddler will surely have noticed that it’s nothing short of pure magic how certain stories can enrapture even very small children for hours (thank God).

Yet, if you ask anyone why a story held their attention, their blank expression will reveal that our response to resonance is mostly unconscious. What are your favorite movies, and why do you love them? The left can only dissect like a critic, it doesn’t see the whole picture. Our largely mute right hemisphere is guiding the rational, restricted left. It’s a hidden force taking the hand of a blindfolded man and helping him back into the flow.

If soap operas, The Real Housewives, or reality shows seem superficial, it’s worth remembering Robin Dunbar’s estimate that 60% of human conversation is gossip. Understanding complex social dynamics and punishing bad behavior is essential to tribal survival. We are drawn to tragedies like Breaking Bad, Ozark, and The Godfather because they show us the compounding cost of poor moral decisions. Mysteries transfix us because unresolved uncertainty, especially the identity of a murderer, can be fatal.

The longer a story has been around, the more widely it appears, and the more it grips our attention, the more powerful the information it must contain. This helps illustrate my obsession with the Hero’s Journey. As I argued in my 19 minute synthesis on Infinite Loops, the Hero’s Journey is a staggeringly precise instruction for how societies and individuals evolve and grow. It's not a story, it's an operating manual. Mythologist Joseph Campbell found it appeared almost universally across human eras and cultures, so much so that he called it “the monomyth.” It’s the story of how our right hemisphere master returns to its rightful place in harmonious supervision of the left.

When ants find a new food source, they lay pheromone trails so that the rest of the colony can find it. Each subsequent ant reinforces the trail, and makes the signal stronger. And yet a certain number of ants peel-off the path, seemingly at random. A remarkable and profound finding was that ants peel-off at a rate that’s directly proportional to the pace of change in the external environment. Essentially a more unstable environment requires more exploratory behavior so that the ants don’t get stuck with a single, depleted food source. This unconscious urge accelerates during a crisis.

As I have a toddler, I’ve now seen Disney’s Moana roughly 40 times. Moana is a classic Hero’s Journey. She is safe on her island, but the environment around her is deteriorating. Her “heart” constantly calls her to explore the great beyond. The signal that it’s time to move. With the help of the spirit of the ocean she is guided beyond the reef that surrounds her island, into a new world of challenges and trials. Eventually she reconciles with nature and returns to her home island with the gift that heals them. In our case the gift is not food, it's a change in mindset that restores our direct connection to the world and shifts the balance away from Moloch.

We’re living through the most aggressively competitive environment for attention and stories ever. According to Ampere Analysis, streaming platforms spent over $220 billion on content in 2021. Their algorithms can now tell what we watch and exactly when we get bored. The mega-viral success of Squid Game is just a single, powerful example of the trend where a story both reflects and influences global social change. Squid Game is specifically about the triumph over Moloch and predatory competition.

That 11 out of 15 of the highest grossing movies ever adhere to the same story arc reflects a global yearning for that myth, and one that seems to be accelerating recently. Almost every Pixar and Marvel movie is now some version of the monomyth.

It never fails to amaze me that we now have a real-time, global mechanism for seeing what a vast proportion of humanity finds meaningful.

It surely can’t be a coincidence that we are all increasingly being drawn to the story of how our consciousness evolves through a crisis. Or maybe I’m just finding false patterns I want to find in the foliage.

But the weirdest idea, one I’ve only recently come to believe, is that the individual is the right level for the necessary shift in global consciousness. It's an empowering thought at a time of crisis. Especially since the right hero can influence everyone else through resonance.

John Vervaeke, a recent speaker for The KCP Group, has described the nature of “prophets” in a way that was at once totally new but instantly familiar.

“A prophet is not somebody who tells the future like some sort of psychic. Prophecy isn't about telling you what's going to be happening 200 or 300 years from now. Prophecy means "a telling forth." The job of the prophet is to wake you up right now to how you are off course.”

The implication is also that a single person can help bring about a phase change in collective consciousness. This is also the role of Campbell’s hero. The modern examples of Solzhenitsyn, Mandela, or Gandhi indicate that perhaps this isn’t as strange as it may initially sound. Contemporary chaos theory seems completely comfortable with the butterfly causing a typhoon or a single grain of sand causing an avalanche. But it seems we rarely consider the same potential when discussing ourselves, even when we have exponentially more sentience and agency.

Thus it should be an urgent project for us to find these modern prophets and boost their signal. A whole community of thinkers has emerged around “sensemaking” and this “metacrisis.” But sadly many attempts to map the new movement are often even more confusing than the movement itself. There’s too much abstract intellectual terminology for a revolution that needs to help counter dangerously abstract intellectualism. I am focused on “hybrid thinkers” who can bridge the hemispheres. They’ll get it wrong, I’ll get it wrong. Often in embarrassing ways. But the process is an upward spiral, not a straight line. The trick is to integrate what resonates without throwing out the whole person for saying something stupid.

Exploring how to dial up that internal resonance and right-hemispheric grounding has been my primary focus. This is why I’ve recently written about flow, creativity, truth-telling, compiling quotes, flexibility, embodiment, and emotional-granularity. I’m obviously not an expert on any of these, but all of them have worked for me. I personally feel more grounded, less anxious, and simply happier. These concepts have universal applications, not least to business and investing. I also believe the central Taoist claim that living this way leads to unpredictable success and flourishing.

Ultimately this optimistic conclusion is “supra-rational.” Not irrational, but beyond the limitations of our left hemispheric intellect. This is necessarily the case; you can’t solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it. It’s what makes the hope radical. It also has the sad consequence that you sound insane to rationalist ears.

But you only need to entertain two absurd ideas: that there’s a guiding force we can make ourselves receptive to. And that each of us, correctly aligned with that force, can have an impact on the entire world. If a sense of meaning indicates the best path for our evolution, all we need is to follow that feeling. Move towards what makes us feel alive. If it’s not too late. But the myths also tell us that at the darkest point is where the greatest transformation happens.

“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

- Joseph Campbell


Related Listening.

  • The Voice Telling You It's Time To Move – my podcast with Frederik Gieschen (1 hour 22 minute listen)
  • I was lucky enough to be invited onto my friend Frederik Gieschen’s podcast Neckar’s Insecurity Analysis. As befits two friends talking, this was an embarrassingly open and vulnerable discussion of my myriad mistakes in life and career. But really I hope it can resonate with people who are stuck in bad places or pondering the next chapter of their lives. It’s about how I moved from Moloch to meaning in my own life.
  • “There's this crazy idea that when you're hearing a prophet or a shaman speak the truth to you, it snaps you back to that frequency, right? It snaps you back to the truth rapidly and that can heal you. And that's something that Joseph Campbell talked about that took me years to understand, which was that myths were there to harmonize the mind and body, which could, you could see this as the left and right hemisphere.
  • And it's this really weird idea that I couldn't contextualize for a really, really long time, but it's basically this idea that if you, if you're told a story that reflects the outside world or reflects your own reality accurately, it brings you back into harmony with the outside world. And we can get stuck off in our heads in all these abstract concepts that have no bearing towards the truth. And we can tell ourselves stories about ourselves that aren't true at all. And it takes someone coming back to us and telling us the truth, however unpalatable that is, that will snap us back to that frequency.”

Finally- here’s a thread of all my favourite moments from fifty or so hours of Cercle sets I’ve listened to while working lately. The best DJs in the world’s most gorgeous places. Hopefully puts a tiny bit of joy back in your day.

Tom

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