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The Attention Span. “The Magic Octopus.”

Every year for the last fifteen years or so, I’ve done an annual rundown of the best pieces I’ve discovered that year. In the new information tsunami, the question I now ask myself whenever I learn something new is:

“How will knowing this change how I live in the world?”

This year I pulled all my favourite pieces together and found the meaning that unifies them all.


“The Magic Octopus.”

[11 minute read]

“My life seemed to be a series of events and accidents. Yet when I look back, I see a pattern.”- Benoît Mandelbrot

Source: Getty Images

Earlier this year, My Octopus Teacher won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It tells the story of South African filmmaker Craig Foster’s unlikely friendship with an octopus. Foster was previously known for 2 films about Kalahari tribespeople. He was struck by their profound connection to the world around them. As he approached middle age, he found himself in a deep malaise and unable to take up his camera again.

A fundamental lack of connection has emerged as the core diagnosis of our personal and cultural problems. One of my favourite podcast episodes of the year was a compilation of “sensemaking” insights from the contributors to Rebel Wisdom. Some of the most insightful thinkers of our time repeatedly identified disconnection as our critical problem. But a massive hurdle is that it’s impossible to even put a word on what we’re disconnected from. Nature, the universe, love, the Tao, the sacred. All of them are inadequate placeholders, laden with far too much cultural baggage.

Perhaps the single best piece I read all year was from the increasingly famous Daniel Schmachtenberger. His short article “The dance of the Tao and the ten thousand things” succeeded in articulating why overreliance on words and abstract concepts have distanced us from the world.

“Reality, the Tao, the Sacred… Can be sensed as something like a kind of incomprehensible wholeness (those words are about as good and as inadequate as any others we might try to use here). The model of reality can be useful. Treating the model as if it is Reality is false idol worship. The hell, the disconnection from the Spirit (the Tao), one is plunged into is where they can no longer sense Reality because they are trying to pattern fit it into their model.”

This is what Foster, and so many of the rest of us, feel disconnected from. As Schmachtenberger explained on a podcast with Joe Rogan last week, the problem arises when our systems target abstract goals; the model not reality. Optimizing solely for profitability or user engagement can create fragility and unintended negative feedback loops. This has exacerbated inequality, polarization, and environmental destruction. In a big year for viral cephalopods, Squid Game’s implicit message was obvious.

How to collapse the model back into reality was the topic of a second phenomenal article. Cedric Chin’s “The Importance of Cognitive Agility” is a deeply practical analysis of how individuals and businesses learn and evolve. But Cedric also illustrates something exceptionally profound: that true change is rarely achieved just by layering more information on top of what we already know. Instead our old models need to be proven to be inadequate. This often causes crisis, failure, and pain.

We’re currently living through a dizzyingly rapid unraveling of existing power structures. Crypto, blockchain, and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are all aimed at dispersing wealth and control. We can expect to see a cascading breakdown of flawed models, but they haven’t yet been replaced with something better. Once you’ve totally decentralized a corporate structure, a DAO that aims at anything other than the Tao risks recreating the same problems again.

There’s an idea that comes out of shamanic cultures that it’s not the death experience that gives the healer his gift, it’s the nature of their rebirth. If you exist out of alignment and get destroyed, you need to realign around something new.

This presents an obvious question, perhaps the most important one of our time. How do we reorient ourselves back towards something we can’t even define? The possible answer comes from an unexpected place.

In My Octopus Teacher, Foster responded to his breakdown by free-diving in the freezing waters of the African cape wearing just a mask and flippers. The cold water and breath control brought him back into his body and environment. Swimming through the kelp forests, he strikes up an unexpected relationship with the mysterious alien intelligence of an octopus. After a year has passed, he has the revelation that he has become an inextricable part of the ecology he has been filming. He said “going there feels like home.”

My third favourite read of 2021 was an interview with Philip Shepherd called “The World’s Hidden Harmony.” He articulately illustrates the nature of embodied cognition as a cause and cure of the myriad issues we see around us. He also talks about the radically different ways other cultures approach their relationship with reality. They often enjoy the kind of connection and wholeness Foster had jealously observed in the Kalahari tribespeople; a “borderless affinity.” It’s a kind of lost “whole-self-cognition” that allows a much more intimate connection to the flow of life within and around us. A critical insight is that reconnecting with our body makes us flourish, but also it helps us close the gap between model and reality.

The common prescriptions here all now obvious to the point of cliché: yoga, breathwork, cold showers, mindfulness, time in nature, music, community. But there’s a neglected nuance here that’s essential. These practices are more than just productivity tools. Their nature can be frustratingly paradoxical. Like grasping for an octopus, the harder you force it, the poorer the results. They are wedges, designed to make space for what Shepherd calls the “exchange of gifts” with the world around us. To react to external signals from reality rather just our interior models. For me, these signals are often experienced as small coincidences, what Einstein called “God’s way of staying anonymous.”

Greater embodiment leads to a greater capacity to detect resonance. Myths, stories, or quotes that stick with us can realign us with the “outside world,” the Tao. Everyone can do it through the synthesis of what truly “sticks” with them. That’s why I hate the word creative. It’s not narrowly restricted to the arts, poetry, or painting. It’s a process of perpetual personal unfolding. Appropriately, my article on resonance and values generated more than twenty times the traffic of anything else I wrote this year.

How does our individual rediscovery of connection address our massive systemic problems? This is where most Western, rational analysis gets stuck; it can’t see around corners. The diagnosis is usually doom and the only prescription is more rationality. They ask how we can redesign another system of top-down control, or get everyone to agree on a single centralized solution. Beyond this limitation is the biggest, and perhaps strangest, idea of the year for me. The realigned individual operating in harmony can have a cascading effect on the whole system.

Both ancient Taoism and modern chaos theory confirm that the individual who has gone beyond the existing stale model can rejuvenate the entire world. A “chance” conversation this week triggered a thought. When troops march over a bridge in formation they can resonate the structure into collapse. When molecules all resonate at a certain frequency they can undergo a rapid phase change. Perhaps the person that can bring through resonant truth helps us all vibrate at the frequency that brings us back into alignment with the world. The trigger for truth I personally listen for is when I hear someone say “you articulated something I always deeply knew, but had never heard put into words.”

I’d tentatively suggest that this unusually optimistic phase change is already unfolding around us. The hardest part at turning points is looking past the obviously irrational individual parts at what the whole means. Exactly like individuals, when a system reaches a stagnant peak of rationality, the only place left to go is irrationality. “WGMI” or “We’re Gonna Make It” is now the rallying cry of these emergent, decentralized communities. ESG and Green infrastructure are bringing the natural world back into markets. Global governments have enacted utterly unprecedented direct fiscal support. Artists and creators are making as much money as speculators. Just last week, the independent writing platform Substack announced that it now had over a million paid subscriptions. Moreover, the infinite games being built online reflect what we want from real life. As it can never be attained, pursuit of the Tao is intrinsically enjoyed purely for the purpose of continuing the game. The explosion of creativity demonstrates this emergent shift, and the art itself reflects the mood back. As the superb Dune podcast below argues, and I agree, our art is increasingly reflecting a shift in global consciousness. For example, our great creators of modern myth, Pixar, surely wouldn’t have made a movie like Soul even twenty years ago. Art leads intellectuals.

As I tried to articulate in my last podcast with Jim O’Shaughnessy, to undertake the journey ourselves we have to cultivate our attention and direct it towards what we love. The finale of Squid Game agrees with Tennyson that (mild spoiler), “love, creation’s final law” triumphs over “nature, red in tooth and claw.” This is not just sentimental; evolution suggests that cooperation, not competition, leads to superior results at the global level.

My hope is also that “love” will bring us back into greater connection with our families, tribes, and communities. At the end of the documentary, Foster talks about how acceptance of his own vulnerability materially deepened his relationship with his son.

One crisp summer morning this year, I was sitting out on the water watching the sun rise over the North Fork of Long Island. As I drank my coffee, the scene was so perfect I kept trying to “capture it” like a snapshot in my mind. Then my three-year-son walked over and hauled himself up onto my lap. Together we started pointing out and naming the birds and boats as they passed. Rather than capture the moment, we fell into its flow, putting together the pieces to find the whole. A river of memory, suddenly flooded with meaning and love.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

- William Blake

Happy Thanksgiving.


Related reading:

  1. Listen: Dune and the Deeper Meaning of Sci Fi by Rebel Wisdom with Damien Walter (1 hour 6 minute listen)
  2. Why Listen: Another example of a magical coincidence. I have talked a lot recently about looking to modern mythology and sci-fi for signals as to where the future is going. I was lucky enough to speak with David Fuller, the founder of one of my favourite podcasts, Rebel Wisdom. We talked the day after my podcast with Jim on the link between the sci-fi movie Interstellar and the Hero’s Journey. With no prior knowledge of my context or interests, he said he was particularly proud of a recent podcast with modern mythologist Damian Walter on Dune. And indeed it’s spectacularly good.
  • The idea that really gripped me was of using Dune and their concept of psychedelic “spice” as a signal for a societal desire for a shift in consciousness. Damien: “when we put aside both like the utopian tech vision of science fiction and the dystopian idea that we're all doomed, I think what's in the heart of it is the psychedelic vision. And it's re-emerging into our culture all of these ancient spiritual ideas of the transformation of consciousness. That we still can't consciously or openly talk about in our society so we do it in a slightly cloaked manner through science fiction. And that is I think why I feel like Dune or the amazing mythos we have like the Marvel universe which is deeply science-fictional. I think it's that which underlies their huge popularity for us.”

Two days after my Infinite Loops presentation on love as a force of nature, my favourite synthesizer Maria Popova wrote in her weekly e-mail:

“It is on gravity’s metaphor we lean when we speak of the binding force of love — the attraction that draws ensouled bodies to one another, as if by magic. But for all the progress science has made in the epochs since Newton, along the long procession of history in which the brilliant and the brokenhearted have walked hand in hand, this binding force is still a mystery, still something closer to grace, perhaps the only form of grace that is real.


Thanksgiving Quiz results:

  • Team Winner: Chad Livingston and team (honourable mentions to the Kemplers, Team Simplify and J.A. Lacy)
  • Individual Winners: Thomas Tirney and Alex Hardy share the podium (honourable mention to Andrew Palen)

Your prize is a quite-literally-priceless KCP Logo extremely-non-fungible-token.

Have a great weekend!

Tom

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