It’s been a little while since I wrote to you. I’m out of practice and every week that I don’t send an email makes it less likely that I’ll do so the next week. Thanks to Adam (👋) for pointing this out and prompting me to get back in the game.
Last Thursday and Friday I took a DIY silent retreat. No phone, no talking to others, just time to walk and sit and read and write and think. My goal was to turn down the volume on all the stuff coming into my life so I can listen to my inner voice. I wanted to figure out where my various ideas and desires come from. Are they really mine, things I want long-term, or am I looking at and copying other people’s ideas of what’s attention-worthy.
In that regard, the trip was a success. Plus I got to spend a lot of time outside in maybe the most iconic place to do a silent retreat: Walden Pond. I spent Thursday walking the path around the lake, checked out Thoreau’s tiny house, went for a swim, read on the beach, and then eventually drove over to my campsite. On Friday I lounged in the woods, then went to another park for more walking and reading. Throughout, I took breaks to write and map out my desires.
My first project was to list all the times I’ve felt like I did something truly fulfilling. A ton of them were overcoming physical and mental challenges — my 2019 ultimate season, finals in 2016, summiting Kilimanjaro, certain tournaments where I played well, getting through my 3-day fast. Another theme was around business and craftsmanship — writing quality code, designing systems that work well over a long time, making something (Topscore) that all my friends use, making another something (LBRY) that strangers around the world love and feel empowered by. Finally, I get a lot out of teaching people and seeing them get it and grow. Whether it’s sports, tech, or raising my kids, unlocking someone else’s success is deeply satisfying.
As a next step, I went back to my core values and put them in order. Putting the values down on paper in the first place was hard for me when I did it a year or two ago. Ranking them was twice as hard. How am I supposed to decide whether Kindness or Curiosity is more important to me??? Clearly it’s both! But once I got over the obvious caveats about incompleteness and lack of nuance, I realized that actually there is a hierarchy. It feels very liberating to be able to say with some certainty that my top value is Health. If I had one wish and I couldn’t wish for more wishes or magic powers or exploit other loopholes, I’d wish for everyone in the world to be healthy (in a broad sense of the word). And if I’m not doing my key health habits because I’m out of practice or feeling overwhelmed, then I’m hurting my future self.
I did a few other things with mapping desire loops and so on, but this email’s already getting long and there’s one last thing I wanna get to. So let’s wrap this part up by saying that thinking explicitly about what I want and where that want came from is new to me and feels super helpful. I’ll credit Luke Burgis’s new book Wanting for this lens. Mimetic theory has been a side interest of mine for a while, and Luke does a great job laying it all out in a coherent way and pointing out the implications that are relevant to me (he’s active in the startup and social media world, so lots of overlap)
At the end of the day on Friday, I was sitting in a park watching people come and go. It was maybe 2pm, so these were mostly either parents with little kids, or old people having a late lunch and enjoying the last few warm days before winter hits. Here a silly story I wrote:
What if all these strangers are low-key super accomplished. That old bald slightly overweight guy at the picnic table in the park, the one with the ugly overalls eating Wendy’s and reading the paper, he saved dozens of lives as a field surgeon in WWII. The grandma next to him with wrinkly skin, glasses, legs up on the bench? A classical pianist who sold out concerts in minutes and used to play private shows for JFK. The dude in the car next to mine, putting his dog in the backseat and coughing painfully? He probably wrote the NTP protocol and maintains the servers today with no attention or compensation. If he has a heart attack tomorrow, half the internet will break. The lady sweating in the long black dress in this October sun, lovingly cooing to her dog (“look at you, hot shot! good booooy”) is part of the team that solved a key step towards harnessing nuclear fusion. In 10 years we’ll have infinite energy and widely-available ocean water desalination. The homeless-looking hermit under the tree wrote a famous novel that’s translated into a dozen languages, but got screwed on publishing royalties by his agent.
These are the secret lives of the old people at the park.