Wolves and Fluidity

There’s a beautiful ancient proverb I think about a lot. It’s about these wolves in your head, and how it’s natural for everyone to have thoughts they like and thoughts they don’t like, and that the ones that stick are like the wolf you feed. Maybe you know it?

I’ve been spending a lot of time with those wolves lately, getting to know them and feeding the wrong one a lot of the time, because, hey, it’s a wolf and it seems like you should feed it instead of getting eaten by it.

I’ve also been thinking that maybe there aren’t just these two wolves, the one you should feed and the one you shouldn’t. That maybe there are whole packs of wolves, colonies of wolves, non-endangered thriving populations of wolves. And some of them are kind of mean and some of them are kind of friendly, and some of them are good at art and some of them are good at caring, and some just lie in the sun all day because the sun is wonderful. An ecosystem of mind-wolves.

They all live there and some of them are well-fed, but even the ones that you try not to feed at all never go away completely. And that with so many wolves to choose from, we become fluid. We are everything and anything. We don’t have boundaries. Or at least those boundaries are temporary, because we’ll all be stars again someday. And there is even a wolf who is the master of your childhood dream, whether it’s drawing or firefighting or having an amazing family, and if you keep putting food out long enough, eventually she will come around. And there is a wolf who is well-adjusted and comfortable in the world, and she will, too.

We are always becoming. We are blossoming in every direction. Even when it feels like we’re not.

What would you do if you knew you would fail?

I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book on creative living, Big Magic, which was lovely and worth a read. She wrote a good deal about embracing failure. It’s a standard topic for books on creativity and personal growth, but her approach got me thinking about it in a new way.

Often in this work, we’ll ask ourselves, “What would I do if I could not fail?” This question is useful because it helps tease out what parts of our life we may be suppressing or not pursuing due to our fear of failure. Maybe if I knew I would be successful, I would choose a more creative path, like painting or writing or dancing. It’s easy to imagine how good life would be if I was a successful artist! Wonderful!

But that idea of success in a creative endeavor may bring some unexpected consequences — disappointment when that success doesn’t come, or an idea that there is such a thing as “success” to be had.

So let me reframe the question.

What would you do if you knew you would fail? That is, you would fail at it regardless of how mundane or creative the task. That as an Excel-jockey or middle manager, or as a painter or dancer, you might never make it work. You might have a job waiting tables or mowing lawns indefinitely, because you can never quite get that career off the ground.

What would you do then? Would you keep doing Excel, or even graphic design (more “creative,” but still confined)? Would you keep painting, if success wasn’t a thing? If you love those things, they might be worth keeping around even if it means keeping a side-gig to stay solvent.

What do you love enough to do even if it means always being kind of terrible at it, never finding “success” outside of your pure, personal, ego-free enjoyment of doing the thing?

This isn’t groundbreaking, or a complete reversal of how we usually think about these questions. But it helps me think about it in a slightly different way, and maybe it helps you think about it, too.

Technological Progress and Denial

Our society is going through major growing pains right now. We’re struggling to cope with some of the most massive changes in human history, and I would argue that we’re not doing an awesome job at it. The current head-in-the-sand approach to globalization (see: Trump, Brexit, Le Pen) isn’t going to get us anywhere except maybe war. We’re addicted to smartphones which make our lives marginally easier, but which don’t make us happier. And we’re nonsensically fighting against automation by easing regulations on coal mining.

These issues are all intertwined, and all similar in our inability to A) take them seriously, and B) act in rational, informed, and compassionate ways about them.


Guess what folks, it’s not going away. There is enormous economic and societal gain to be had from embracing, rather than running from globalization. The question is not whether or not to participate, but how to use it to promote freedom and human rights while enriching the world. The “war on terror” will not be won by dropping a bigger bomb, but by changing people’s minds. The “war on drugs” will only be won by legalization and treatment.

Personal Technology

We’ve put ourselves in an enormous psychological research study without any direction, intention, or regard for the health of the test subjects. Perhaps this is what society has always been, but not at this speed. What if we discover that using iPads before the age of five causes psychological or learning disorders in teenagers? It would be impossible to know or study because iPads have only existed for seven years. Clearly they aren’t going away, but the faith people are willing to put into their devices is astounding. To me, the most frightening piece of the personal technology revolution is the trust we’ve put in corporations. We can’t regulate technology when we don’t know the effect it has on our health, and right now tech companies and marketing firms have free rein to use our psychological quirks and patterns for their own profit. Or to win elections.


Like globalization, this one isn’t going away. The latest TED Radio Hour did a chilling overview of the state of deep learning, which I highly recommend. Long story short: most of us may not have much work in 20 or 30 years. Computers are going to be better than us at pretty much everything, and unlike previous technological revolutions, this one isn’t likely to create other jobs in the process. Driverless cars are an easy example. One team of engineers can create software to put 3+ million professional drivers in the United States alone out of work. Deep learning machines are going to do the same thing to less mechanical tasks, like finding cancer (already done), real-time translation (already done), and global finance (probably close).

This sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s the thing: work is not what defines us as humans. It’s time for our society to start thinking about what happens in a post-employment world. I find that idea hugely compelling, and an opportunity for arts and culture to flourish in ways we’ve never imagined. But it means reorienting our society and finding ways to support everyone, regardless of employment. Personally, I’m a fan of Guaranteed Basic Income, but more important is that we take the question seriously and talk about what our society is really for.

This is the basic idea here. We’ve taken a big step backward in politics in the last year (not just in the U.S.). Clearly this is happening for a reason. People are upset. Unfortunately, putting our heads in the sand and ignoring the issues isn’t going to make them go away. And technology isn’t going to wait for policy to catch up (clean energy, rideshare apps, laws and ethics). It’s time for us to recognize the magnitude of what we’re dealing with, clarify our ideals, and start working on an informed and compassionate way forward.

Nothing Matters and I’m an Optimist

Whether it’s through spirituality, science, therapy, or philosophy, I always seem to come to the same conclusion: nothing matters. We live short-ish lives, and we die. Everyone we know dies. Our names are forgotten, or are never known in the first place. We make things and they fall apart, disintegrate. We are part of this human society which is very likely destroying itself and the planet to which it belongs.

And I call myself an optimist. To deny these things is not optimism, as some would say, but escapism. They all seem to be true, as best we can figure, without getting into speculation of an afterlife. So the optimism comes after the facts: these truths are enormously liberating. They give us freedom and agency. They allow us to be forgiven, to accept life as it is, and to be present right now.

The first time I was exposed to this idea was in 2008 on a road trip to Arizona. A friend showed me some Alan Watts. I’m pretty sure this is the piece I read:

We say the only things certain are death and taxes. And the death of each one of us now is as certain as it would be if we were going to die five minutes from now. So where’s your anxiety? Where’s your hangup? Regard yourself as dead already so that you have nothing to lose. A Turkish proverb says, “He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.” So in the same way is the person who regards himself as already dead.

Therefore, you are virtually nothing. A hundred years from now you will be a handful of dust, and that will be for real. All right now, act on that reality. And out of that…nothing. You will suddenly surprise yourself: The more you know you are nothing the more you will amount to something.

We spend so much of our short time here wracked with anxiety about the future and the past, about things that probably will never happen and things that certainly already have (or have not). We forget about living right now. These things holding us back, and we can let go of them.

Some Buddhist traditions teach taking five minutes each day to meditate on death. This is not a strange or morbid practice. It is about recognizing the briefness of life and finding resolve to make those remaining minutes, days, years or decades worthwhile.

I’m also not advocating a binge — trading future health and safety for brief moments of joy or thrill. This is the beauty and mystery of life. We can find ways to thrive and be fully engaged in the world while also moving toward a future of the same or better.

Please Be Quiet

Please, find some time to be quiet. Not for me or for the people around you. For you.

I read this David Brooks editorial in the Times this morning about smartphones and taking time to be with ourselves, and got excited to write a blog post about it. Then I read the article he referenced by Andrew Sullivan and realized there’s nothing else for me to say. So I’m not going to. Please read the article. It’s long and worth it. See if you can read it in one sitting without getting up to do something else. Better yet, see if you can read the whole thing without checking your phone. I couldn’t.

I wish that I could say my absence from blogging has been an intentional push to work on these things myself, but it hasn’t been. I’ve just been too busy to write. Or busy enough to tell myself that I’m too busy to write. Now I’m feeling inspired now to leave behind my phone and social media, to just be in the world. I hope to see you there!