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.

Year in (P)review: Reflecting on This Year and the Next

A year in review, a year in preview. I’m gearing up to do this in the next couple weeks, and I hope you’ll find a chance to do so as well. The basic idea: take some time at the end of the year to reflect on the year gone by, and to set some intentions for the year to come. Maybe people do a version of this by having a New Year’s resolution, but I’m talking about a much more in-depth thing. Not just coming up with one item for a to-do list as you clink glasses on New Year’s Eve.

Instead, it’s a drawn-out process involving substantial reflection and introspection from a variety of angles. It can involve movement, meditation, long walks, bubble baths, sitting by a fire. Activities that turn us inward and allow us the opportunity to be quiet with ourselves. Sans smartphone.

I like to start with the year gone by. It can help to organize the internal conversation by asking some questions. Start simple. What happened this year? What were some of the big events? What were some of the small events that made a big impact? What was the overall feeling in the year, and how did that evolve?

Then, we can get into more substance. It helps if you went through this reflection process a year ago as well, but it’s by no means necessary. What was I hoping for this year? Did I move closer to that goal? Did I realize I needed to pivot those intentions? What worked? What didn’t? As Bob Ross said, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” No need to think of the things that didn’t work as failures. They are places for growth and learning.

But we do need to get into them. We won’t gain much from our failures unless we allow ourselves to examine them. If we repress, we lose the lesson and build up future pain. What would I have liked to have done more? Done less? What was valuable to my life as a whole? What took a lot of time, but proved not to be valuable? Again, no judgement against the self, we just recognize these things.

Asking these questions allows us to get a deeper impression of the year. We can begin to ask some less tangible questions. What brought me joy? What did I love? Who were the most important people in my life? What can I do to express that to them, to show gratitude to them? How can I show those same qualities to myself?

There are unlimited questions we could ask ourselves about the year gone by, and it is valuable to come up with a few yourself, based on what’s important to you. At a certain point it is time to transition from the year gone by to the year to come. I’ll try to take at least a day for each. Not necessarily sitting at a journal all day, but having that intention for the day. Bringing it with me to yoga class, to the coffee shop.

The year to come represents enormous opportunity. One could argue that the transition to the new year is purely theoretical and arbitrary. Sure, I agree. The solstice is Tuesday, New years is in a week and a half. There are all sorts of other landmarks around this season that can be used. But regardless of what is arbitrary or true, the idea of transition and new beginnings can be very effective for bringing in new energy to our lives.

Imagine: if you wanted to, you could change everything in your life in just a matter of the next few weeks. If you are out of shape and overweight, you could start on the path of health and fitness by exercising every day. You could make that part of your life and your routine, part of who you are. You can start a new hobby, a new craft, and eventually make that into your life’s work. Never done much art? You could start painting every day, again making that part of who you are, and by the end of the year you would have enough talent and work to begin to sell art in a real way. These things won’t necessarily be easy, but they are achievable.

Or the changes could be much more modest. You could spend substantially more time with your family, your kids. You could cut out habits, get away from screens and pocket vibrations. You could start jogging regularly or learning how to throw pottery. All these take a strong will and a set of powerful intentions. They take more than a half-hearted New Year’s resolution. But New Year’s is still a great time to do them.

As we begin to look forward, we need to keep in mind the reflection we’ve done on the past year. Frame the questions in a similar way. What do I want to do? What big events would I like to accomplish? Any travel? What are some small things I could do that might make a big difference?

And get bigger: How do I want to live? What are going to be the main focuses of my energy? Who do I want to share my life and my love with? What one thing would I do every single day, if I could? What do I want to create? How do I want to grow as a person?

If you’d like, come up with a word for the year to come. Something that embodies the values and intentions you’d like to live.

There is reason to be optimistic. We have the power to create our own lives. Even with the complications and guidelines put on us by society, we always have the opportunity to choose how we respond to the world. We can create an internal state that is resonant with our values and with the people we love.

I encourage you to give it a try. Even if it’s just an hour sitting down with a notepad for the past year and one for the next, this exercise has enormous potential. The days are nearly the shortest they’ll be all year, and this is a natural time for reflection. Treat yourself, and have some fun with it!