Guilt, Shame, White Privilege

Pete: I love that “white middle-class complex” thing going on at Hacker News.

Jovan: Tell me about it, I don’t get it. Where does it stem from?

Pete: They are a bunch of emotionally stunted, white, middle class geeks I guess. They want everything to work like software, but it doesn’t. And they want to generalize everyone as themselves+delta, when they aren’t.

Jovan: Hah. Don’t tell me you got pulled into that shit too.

Pete: What do you mean?

Jovan: You realize their arguments revolve around how you and I are privileged because we’re a) white, b) middle-class, c) in our 20s, right? To paraphrase, we’re “playing life on easy mode” compared to everyone else.

Pete: And what’s your position on the matter?

Jovan: I haven’t really thought about what a reasonable position would be. I’m still in shock mode, having been declared privileged for growing up in a 2nd-world country and having the opportunity to move to Canada.

Pete: Well, here’s the thing. There’s a huge swath of people, maybe 4 billion or so, who have categorically different life experiences from white, middle class dudes in the first world. And it’s not just that their experiences are different, it’s that their experiences have made them different, kind of fundamentally. On a neurobiological and emotional level.

Jovan: Sure.

Pete: I really understood that when I got to know my ex wife, who grew up not only dirt poor, but in a poverty, minority mindset. And that state of being is practically unfathomable for someone not in it. It’s crippling in ways that are not easy to understand or articulate.

Jovan: I kind of got that vibe when I dated an asian girl awhile back. Thing is, here’s my overarching question regarding all this: what should you and I do? How am I supposed to respond to being called out on being white, middle class, in my 20s?

Pete: The same thing everyone else should do: don’t be a douchebag.

I used to tell my older son something. He was 15 at the time, and in college. By 18 he would have an associates degree. He’s a good kid, perfectly smart and everything, but I used to tell him: don’t you dare forget that you had advantages. You’re smart, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean shit.

You’re where you are because your mother and I are educators, because we give a shit, because we can work from home, because we are qualified to supervise your accelerated education, because because because, and only then do you get to work hard to get this advantage. So don’t forget that you had that when you’re older, and don’t judge people who didn’t have the same advantages you did.

Jovan: Okay so we’re discussing two similar, but disjointed things. You make a valid point, and I agree. But your point revolves around individuals who are privileged. I’m talking about the fact that there’s a movement on Hacker News and in other tech communities that are looking down upon white tech dudes, across the spectrum, douchebag or not. Some ruby conference got cancelled because mostly white guys showed up. To not appear sexist or racist.

That’s what I think is happening, which is what I asked “what do you want me to do about it?”

Pete: Yeah, it’s simple from a psych perspective: when you have guilt, you have to deal with it. It’s easier to resolve the cognitive dissonance by subverting it into shame.

The fundamental difference is that guilt is something internal, whereas shame is something external that you can then fight against.

Jovan: I should be ashamed of being white and in my 20s? Makes no sense.

Pete: We collectively feel guilty and we don’t collectively have the tools and resources to process it appropriately, so we subvert that guilt into public shame, but it’s all bullshit—it’s a psychic defense against change.

Jovan: Change of what?

Pete: Change of ego, identity. The ego hates to change. To stop feeling guilty about cultural baggage you have to change your identity.

Jovan: That “public shaming” is what I meant when I said “oh man, don’t tell me you got pulled into that shit too.” I think we’re being shamed.

Pete: Right, but we’re not being shamed by someone else. We, as a community, are creating our own shame. We feel guilty about the way we treat minorities, including women. But why do the hard work of changing your identity when you can externalize the guilt you feel, get a free source of significance from being “persecuted” for privilege you never asked for, and then never have to change or grow. Win win win!

A lot of human behavior can be explained in terms of psychic defense against change (of one’s ego).

Mike enters, also a white middle-class Canadian, who is from Greece.

Mike: Jovan, I think you’re just supposed to acknowledge the fact that you’re somewhat privileged, and not endorse bullshit mantras like “everyone gets what they deserve in life.”

Jovan: Mike, I’d be a pretty big douchebag if I endorsed that.

Pete: But a lot of people really do. Like my son could easily have grown up and thought “psht, I graduated college when I was 18, these people are just lazy!” And I know a lot of people who feel very much that way, and it’s bullshit.

Jovan: Mike and I are neighbours. He’s Greek, I’m Serbian, but I’m in Canada now. So when I hear someone declare that we should feel ashamed of being white and in our 20s because we had shit handed to us, I think to myself, “I grew up on a farm in a poor as shit country. What?”

Pete: I think the healthy response is like Mike says: acknowledge it, appreciate it, don’t judge others, and do the best you can with what you’ve got.

And sure Jovan, you have a different experience, like my woman grew up on a farm in Kenya, so I get it. But one thing I want you to realize is that poverty mindset I talked about is destructive and insidious, and just growing up poor doesn’t necessarily infect you with it. It didn’t infect my woman, but it did infect my ex wife, who (strictly speaking) was better off in the first world than my woman was in Kenya.

Jovan: Touché.

Pete: It’s a combination of the practical benefits like having access to nutritious food, plus the mindset of possibility and social mobility that make us privileged.

Simple things too, like our accent. You may have an eastern european accent but it doesn’t map to “ghetto trash” to the average Canadian. I have a standard american accent. My ex had a “ghetto trash” British accent, and she was treated as such there. When she came here that changed, because Americans can’t tell the difference between a ghetto British accent and a posh one. It all sounds posh to them. And so she changed as well.

Anyway, I think it’s a good idea to be mindful, but I think it’s a bad idea to allow yourself to be shamed.

For further reading on empathy, I highly recommend Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

Privilege of Desire

Angela is not my girlfriend. You wouldn’t know it if you saw us together though, the way we kiss, the way I pick her up and spin her around, the way we look into each others’ eyes, and touch each others’ faces while we talk.

There is melancholy and doubt in her eyes that I noticed when I first met her. She’s a shining torrent of love and positivity, and she’s deeply wounded under it all. She’s mysterious that way.

I have an intimacy with her that feels cultivated over many lifetimes, but the special thing about Angela is how she can create that intimate space with anyone. It feels natural and easy with her, her way of moving through the world practically begs you fall into intimacy with her.

Everyone—man, woman, straight or gay—is magnetized by her. Everyone is fascinated by her and in love with her, and I’m not an exception. But there is a difference: I can hold space with her, in her love, and not fall in lust with her. I can dive into the wash of affection and love, and still be a witness to it instead of a passenger in it.

I imagine being around her is similar to being near Steve Jobs. They have a “Reality Distortion Field” around them, something about their way of existing in the world is different, and if you could figure out, you could have what they have, which seems to be everything, if you don’t look too closely.


Today I had a conversation with her, and everything fell into place. I understood her from the inside in that moment. She’s having a get together at her house tonight, and asked me if I was going to make it.

I told her I had a lot of work to do, but the plan is to be there.

She said:

> Knowing that, my heart skipped a beat
> can’t wait to see you
> sending you light and love to finish your work with today, get it done babe


Angela is a beautiful girl, and the thought of her heart skipping a beat for me is kind of swoony. The contrast of the mundane nature of the conversation, the utterly normal subject matter, and the deep, almost sexual charge about her approach to it was a revelation to me.

What if I experienced my day to day thoughts and desires from deep inside my body instead of experiencing them as thoughts in my head? What if I longed for the mundane? What if my heart raced and my pelvis dilated when I thought of work, food, good company?

I feel that about Angela now, I understand that her desire isn’t an object, it’s not necessarily about anything; Angela’s deeply felt desire is the context of her world.

The kicker: after the physiological reaction in my body, even knowing that her desire is about her and not about me, I went from 25% chance of going to 75% chance of going with only 3 lines of facebook messages.

It would be easy to create a story about Angela using her sexual power to manipulate, but judging people doesn’t teach us anything. It just makes us right and smug.

If you know Angela like I do and have deep empathy for her like I do, you know that she experiences and expresses in earnest, she wears her heart on her sleeve. You know that cynicism is toxic to her spirit and she won’t abide it.

If the situation were exactly reversed, I would have idly hoped she was at my party. I would’ve been unattached, but open to the possibility of her being there. My way of being isn’t wrong, it’s right in a lot of ways.

But that’s not Angela, and I wanted to learn how to turn on my own Reality Distortion Field.


The first key insight is that she experiences desire in a visceral way. In the way I only experience sexual desire. If it were me, I would’ve “wanted” to see her, on a purely intellectual level, and I would’ve kept my communication about it at that level.

But she desired to talk to me, she felt it from her pelvic floor, and when that desire gushed out it sounded like lust. When I told her she might get what she wanted, she had a reaction in her body, an anticipation that her desire would be consummated.

That’s a major shift from how I normally experience the world, and it leads to…


The second key insight: a person who moves through the world like Angela, open to experience and feeling raw passion and desire is in love with the world. When she’s at her best, she’s excited to experience each and every thing that comes her way, and accepting it as the gift it is.

If you’re in that mindset, you create excitement in people. They can feel it. They can feel that you’re excited by them, that you lust after them.

Most people take it personally and hope they can fuck Angela, but that’s not what her lust is about (most of the time). It’s not about you, it’s about experiencing love through you.

Angela creates a bubble of privilege around herself by being so very excited about you and “in love” with you, if only in the moment she’s with you. She makes people feel excited about her by being excited about them. At her best, she loves and is present in a totally unselfconscious way, that begs for you to be open and happy around her, that calls to you to fall in love with her.

And people do. They fall all over themselves for her, to support her, to help her, to adore her, all for the privilege of just basking in her light and nothing more. They want more, but they take what they can get.


There are advantages to being the way I am, experiencing most desire intellectually. For example, I’m not impulsive or addictive at all, which often serves me well. But there’s a magic about being the way Angela is, and now that I have more insight into the raw desire that makes it possible, it’s another tool I have to make the world sparkle a little brighter.

Thanks Angela, I accept your gift.

Keep your Baggage Light

Carlos came to me the other day very upset. He’s in his mid 20s, and he’s about to be engaged to his beautiful girlfriend who he loves very much. He’s always been straight, except… you know where this is going.

He met Zeb a few weeks ago, and Carlos can’t get Zeb off his mind. Carlos is intensely attracted to him, romantically and sexually.

Carlos’ question is: what does it mean? Am I gay and I just didn’t know?


Imagine you live in the world were only sneakers and sandals exist. People for whatever reasons tend to just wear one or the other. So we invent labels and attach our identities strongly to being either a Sneaker or a Sandal. Then I come along and I’m like “I sort of like both?” and everyone says “whatever man, you really only like one, you’re in denial.” and I’m like “No, I mean, when I’m running I like sneakers, but when it’s hot out and I’m at the beach, sandals are nice.”

So then we made up a bunch of other words that try to encapsulate people who like both to some degree or another.

Then people in high heels and dress shoes showed up, and we’re running around trying to define and categorize it all.

But there’s nothing to categorize here, it’s just people doing things at various times according preferences, some of which are innate, some of which are driven by culture.


In other words:

The discussion of what a person’s sexual orientation “really is” actually contains no information.

We invented a concept that’s supposed to group certain traits and behaviors together, then we forgot that we literally just made up the labels, and now we’re talking about what the labels “really” mean, as if they have some objective meaning at all. They mean whatever. They mean nothing.

The thing is that we used to think the labels meant something. But now that people are a little more open about what they’ve done and what they are into, we have all these infinite scenarios that don’t neatly fit any of the older labels. When that started happening we should’ve collectively said: “ohhhh, I get it, there’s nothing here, we’re literally talking about nothing at all.”

Instead we invented “pansexual,” and “sapiosexual,” and we needed Kinsey to give us a scale; we’re clinging to a bankrupt nothing here.

People just do things, and the variety of things that people do defies simplistic labels much the same way that our choice of footware defies simplistic labels, and in fact we are chasing our tails and wasting our time trying to come up with a labeling scheme for sexuality in much the same way that we’d be wasting our time trying to come up with a precise labeling scheme for what shoes you like.


So Carlos’ problem isn’t that he likes Zeb, that’s just a fact of the matter. Carlos’ problem is that his identity as a masculine, heterosexual man has come into conflict with his feelings toward Zeb. They can’t coexist, so they are in gridlock.

Many people fight hard to suppress their feelings at this point. They reaffirm their heterosexuality by bashing gay people, maybe. Some people accept their feelings, and they shift the label they use. Maybe Carlos can identify as bisexual. Maybe he doesn’t like that label, so he uses pansexual. Maybe he tries on something cute like heteroflexible.

But all that is missing the point.


The entire concept of labeling that group of feelings and behaviors is bankrupt now. Maybe it was useful to him at one point, but now it’s just upsetting him. He doesn’t have to shift identity: he can just drop it entirely.

The real issue here is that the label “straight” contains way more information than “I like girls.” That information is often hidden under layer upon sweltering layer of cultural conditioning. For example, now that Carlos’ is attracted to Zeb, he wonders: do I really love my girlfriend? How can I love a girl if I’m gay? Because straight means I don’t like guys. But I like this guy. But gay means I don’t like girls. But I do like girls. Don’t I?

And that’s without getting into the other hidden beliefs like: If I’m in love that means I can’t be attracted to anyone else. If I am attracted to other people that must mean I’m really not in love.

Many a relationship has been destroyed by that one.

If he didn’t have any concept of sexuality or romance there would be no conflict at all: he’d simply notice he’s attracted to Zeb, and notice he’s in love with his girlfriend, and move forward effortlessly according to whatever principles he chose.

Think about Sneakers and Sandals. Can you see how silly it would be for a person to have an existential crisis about wearing sandals? For them to wonder if they “really” enjoy running in sneakers after all? And how useless it would be to try to find a new label to precisely identify the degree to which they like sneakers and sandals at the same time?

In real life, you just put on whatever shoes you want. You buy the ones that you like or that fit some criteria you have for the moment. You change them later if you feel like it. Who gives a shit?



Everyone seems to give a shit, for a variety of reasons. But it’s bullshit, it’s just baggage that you’re creating for yourself. Part of your baggage is the labels you put on yourself and the stories you tell yourself about what your identity precisely is.

Most of the time, those labels and stories don’t serve you. Most of the time you serve them.

So pack light. Define as little as possible about yourself. It saves you from fighting through a rat’s nest of cultural baggage that you didn’t ask for. It makes you flexible, and makes the conscious decisions about the important aspects of your identity all the more meaningful.

Man Over Gremlins

Continued from Zombie Gremlins

Here’s a game of Zombie Gremlin Ping Pong, the proverbial echo chamber I mentioned the previous essay, played out over the course of thousands of years:

  • Master Morality

    Strongmen like Genghis Khan run roughshod over the known world. No one can stop him, his men have the best lives and most reproductive success. I hear 5% of the modern world population can trace their ancestry back to him. The traits that make him and his army successful: strength, cunning, ruthlessness—all become virtues.

    The mythology of those cultures have pantheons of powerful, petty gods doing as they please. Might makes right; the stronger you are, the more right you are.

    It starts as a description: powerful people can do whatever they want because no one can stop them. That’s “Master Morality.” It ends up a post hoc rationalization, a prescription: powerful people are given the right by god to do whatever they want, and their power is just proof of that divine right. That’s “Divine Master Morality.”

  • Slave Morality

    Like a rebellious Jehovah’s Witness girl turning gothic Wiccan, slave morality forms in impotent rebellion against the repression of the oppressive masters. Weak people become the virtuous meek people, strength becomes pride, surrendering shows true strength.

    The mythology of these cultures call for subservience above all else, the pinnacle of human existence is acknowledging your intrinsic worthlessness and yoking yourself to the one, correct master. In other words, “Divine Slave Morality.”

  • Secular Humanism

    Cue the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution, and people aren’t so comfortable with the notion of God the Father anymore. “It’s a fairy tale!,” they say.

    Slave morality is the zombie gremlin of master morality because it says: “You think God gave you the right to be powerful, but you’re wrong. God gave you the power to be subservient!” It never questions the fundamental premise.

    Secular Humanism is the zombie gremlin of slave morality because it says: “You think God gave you the power to serve others selflessly, but you’re wrong. You can serve others selflessly without God, because it’s self evidently the right thing to do!” It also never questions the fundamental premise. It’s the Judeo-Christian moral system with an alternative cosmogeny.

    It’s just “Slave Morality” minus the divinity. It legitimizes that belief structure, and all the baggage that goes with it.

  • Nihilism

    And then comes the dark night of the soul.

    Everything in this ping pong game so far as derived from one fact: sufficiently strong people can do whatever they want and get away with it. We started with that core, built a veneer of divine credibility around it, lost the core when we turned the veneer inside out to favor subservience, then we got rid of the divine veneer and found nothing left at the center. And now we’re left with nothing.


But Nihilism is also a sophomoric whack of the paddle in this game of ping pong. If we want to subvert the whole premise of the question we must ask: When we say that we “should” do something, we are assigning value to actions. But what is value? What is valuable?

And the fundamental context for that question that we still have not collectively risen above is: Who has authority to determine value? In other words, what outside force or system or person shall we look to for this answer?

Nihilists got part of the way when they discovered that there is no outside source of meaning, no external authority. But they stopped short in their navel gazing.


You are the child of a blind, idiot god who shat you onto a tiny sandbar in an ocean of chaos. You’re just a byproduct of your god’s senseless fumbling.

There is no higher authority than you. It is you, and you alone who can claim authorship over value and meaning and morality. You will either forge your vision from the raw chaos, or you will be co-opted into a bit part in some other author’s vision.

You are among a legion of weavers creating a tapestry, and the mark you leave can be a shape you choose, like a premise for other people to implicitly accept and mold themselves around. Or you will be formed implicitly from the shapes around you, created by others. It’s your choice.


Zombie Gremlins

Continued from Gremlins of Belief

I knew a goth girl in college. She identified as Wiccan, which basically means she worshipped “The Goddess,” nature. She had grown up a Jehovah’s Witness, and when she left her parents’ house, she saw the error of their beliefs, and she became Wiccan.

There is a mirror image version of the Gremlin Fallacy.

Instead of continuing to believe something that’s been fundamentally subverted by new information, you stop believing in something in favor of a different thing that does not fundamentally subvert the original belief.

You thought you killed the gremlin, but you actually gave it a new, secret life.

Parent tries to force rebellious teen to worship God A. Teen reacts by declaring her devotion to God B.

This act of rebellion implicitly accepts and legitimizes the premise of worshipping God A because the rebellion isn’t categorically different. It’s only qualitatively different. “Being Christian is stupid! I don’t worship God! I worship Satan!” You’re doing it wrong.

Consider a debate about the ethics of marriage: should a man be allowed to marry a 12 year old girl? Or should he wait to marry a girl who is at least 18 years old?

If you get into a discussion about age of consent and brain development, you’re already lost.

By having that conversation you’re implicitly accepting premises like:

  • Marriage makes sense.
  • Men have the final power over who they marry, even if we think their choice is unethical.

The second one might not make sense to you. Put another way: If a US Senator says he’s going to pass a bill that ends welfare and repurposes that money to fund full time strippers for every Senator, then we’d be mad and say he is doing the wrong thing. If I, Pete Michaud, wanted to pass the same bill, I’d be detained by the Secret Service for trespassing. See the difference?


It’s called “Framing” in marketing and politics. Do you use Dove or Oil of Olay? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Do you Vote or Not? Meaningless choices that legitimize each other.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
~David Foster Wallace

When it’s used to give small children a sense of control (“Do you want to take a nap in your bed or Mommy’s bed?”), the trick is maybe justifiable. But it’s used by culture and media to make you impotent and powerless in the same way a toddler is powerless to skip his nap. It’s used to keep you debating about peoples’ genitalia while important things are happening unnoticed.

It’s insidious because there’s never a prompt to consider it. In fact it’s often presented in such a way as to prevent you from considering it.

At least the gremlin fallacy presents you with information that you are primed to evaluate. The only question is whether you evaluate it correctly.

Zombie Gremlins are tougher to root out. Are you gay or straight? Do you want to marry me or someone else?

You have to use your creativity to subvert the basic assumptions of the question, and develop answers other than ones presented to you.



One technique is something I call the “Or…” technique. If you’re presented with an option, just add “or…” to the end:

“Do you want to marry me or someone else or…

That will get you at least considering the context of the question since you’ll be developing other options.

Concept or Reality

The stronger technique is to find the subject of the question— eg. sexual orientation, or marriage, or political affiliation—and simply identify if the thing exists in reality, or only in our heads. If an alien asked you what something was, could you point at it? Could you measure it? Or would you have to explain it in terms of ideas about how people relate to each other?

There’s no marriage atom, or political affiliation phenotype.

If it’s just a concept, then the premise of the question is suspect. Concepts aren’t questions of fact, they are always question of value, of utility: is this concept useful to me, or not? Does it harm me in some way? Is the idea of marriage useful? Helpful?

Once you start asking a question like that, you’re on the right track. Coming to a satisfying answer is another matter, and depends on how smart you are and how honest with yourself you are.

Maybe the best you can do is throw temper tantrum, but at least you’re not a toddler being duped into a nap anymore.

Continue to Part 3: Man Over Gremlins →

Gremlins of Belief

Tortoise: This watch works because tiny, invisible gremlins are pushing the hands.
Hare: No, the watch works because a battery is powering a motor, that drives some gears that are attached to the hands.
Tortoise: Ah, I see the machinery, clearly. The gremlins must be using the machinery to drive the hands for them!

We know that’s not true though. The machinery obviates the need for gremlins—the machinery fundamentally subverts the premise of the gremlins. Tortoise would never have considered the gremlins if she had known about the machinery first.

Tortoise is attached to the gremlin hypothesis, maybe because she has an identity level belief that she is “a tortoise who believes in gremlins.” Maybe that belief makes her part of a culture, or it gives her comfort and meaning in some other way. So she’s asking the wrong question. She’s asking:

What does this evidence allow me to believe?

The question she should be asking is:

What does this evidence force me to believe?

The shift is subtle, but critically important.


Everyone has bullshit swilling around their skull, and the first question lets you get away with just piling on more shit without real critical self examination.

First, you think there are gremlins. Then, you learn about motors. But the presence of motors doesn’t prove that the gremlins aren’t there, so the facts allow you to continue believing in gremlins.

The second question forces you to continuously reexamine and ruthlessly dump old beliefs that are no longer absolutely necessary.

First, you believe in nothing because nothing you know forces you to believe anything. Or maybe you actually do believe in gremlins because you grew up with parents who believe that’s how watches work, and you have never realized it’s a belief you’re not forced to have. Then you learn about motors, and you realize that the gremlins aren’t necessary anymore. Knowing about the motor forces you believe that’s how watches work, but doesn’t force you to believe in gremlins, so you don’t believe in gremlins anymore.


There is a common rationalization among Christians that God used evolution to create life.

Continue to Part 2: Zombie Gremlins →

The Gridlock of Identity

You can’t kill him because you’re a good person.
You can’t doubt him because you’re a person of faith.
You can’t let him pay for your dinner because you’re a feminist.

Even though you really want to.

What would it mean if you killed, doubted, let him pay? You wouldn’t be who you are.

It’s easy when you’re a good person who is not killing people. That’s not likely to cause conflict in your life. It’s hard when you’re a faithful person who is gay.

These are identity level beliefs, and they are likely the source of all your problems.


I met a woman recently who lost 175lbs, over half her body weight. The problem with diets is they assume that if you eat less, you’ll lose weight. That’s mathematically true, but as large as the diet industry is, very few people make a permanent transition from overweight to healthy.

The trick is that you will never lose the weight because you are “A Fat Person.” You love bread. And cheese, oh my god. You want to want to exercise more (not a typo), but honestly you hate it. You eat weight watchers and hired a trainer to force you to work out. But you’re still just “A Fat Person.” You want that cheese, you hate working out.

You have to shift—to change identities. You have to become “A Fit Person.”

You have to become the type of person who counts calories for fun. Who knows the macronutrient breakdown of everything you put in your mouth off the top your head because nutrition is your hobby. Superfoods and personal records excite you—give you a dopamine rush— and thinking of cake makes you feel queasy because it’s too sweet and heavy. Bring on the salad with lemon juice! You are “A Fit Person.”

There’s a world of difference between being a fat person on a diet and being a fit person who is overweight.


Let’s talk about why the shift is so fucking hard. But first an easy one.

The Monk

I am a vegetarian. I didn’t grow up that way, but I’ve always felt a great deal of empathy for animals, and I don’t see myself as categorically different from them. I think they feel pain and fear, and I think many, maybe most, of them experience love and joy and connection just like we do.

So when I’d eat them, I would think about that.

I’m a good person.
I do helpful, loving things.
I am eating an innocent creature.
This creature didn’t deserve to die.
This creature probably had a terrible life and a harrowing death.
I’m eating this creature because I can. I’m stronger than it was, and no one will stop me.

All these thoughts aren’t compatible. I have an identity level belief—a story that I tell myself about who I fundamentally am—and the story isn’t matching my actions.

Either the story has to change, or my actions have to change.

So when my older son asked to become vegetarian when he was 11 or 12, I was already there. It wasn’t even a discussion. He brought it up, and I said “ok.” And I never ate meat again, and I didn’t miss it. My identity had already shifted to the point that eating meat caused cognitive dissonance, so all I had to do was make the choice. Easy!

But here’s the hard one.

The Warrior

I was lucky that I didn’t have previous cultural programming about “real men” having to be carnivores. Then I’d have to untangle that mess of identity and figure out how to see myself as a “real man” who didn’t eat meat.


But I do have a problem. See, I’m also “A Fit Person.” I used to do hundreds of pushups at a time in elementary school, just to see if I could. In the gap before college, I would work out 2 to 3 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week. That description of counting calories, and knowing the macronutrients in all my food was about me.

I’m eating a sandwich as I type.

It has Ezekiel bread which is 80 calories per slice, mostly carbs but more protein than most bread (12g total, roughly). It has mustard which has negligible macronutrients. It has 5 slides of Tofurky sandwich “meat,” which is about 120 calories of half carbs, half protein. It has 2 slices of pepper jack cheese, which are mostly fat and protein, and are 200 calories total. On the balance, it’s a little carb heavy, but it’s a decent snack. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I just wrote that out without looking and without planning ahead for what I was going to be eating at this moment.

My divorce was rough on me, and I was underweight by at least 25lbs because of the stress. Afterward I healed, got back to the gym, and put on 35lbs, mostly lean. But I almost killed myself doing it. I ate like it was my job, constantly stuffing myself until it hurt to eat, just to barely meet my nutritional goals.

It’s very difficult to put on lean weight as a vegetarian. And at some point I had to stop, I was hurting myself, and I was constantly uncomfortable (identities are powerful, you’ll put yourself through a lot of misery to maintain your identity). I lost 10 of the 35lbs.


So now I’m at a crossroads. I have these two important identities: “I am a Loving person, who doesn’t kill animals,” and “I am a Strong and Healthy person.” And they are coming into conflict like a Gay Catholic.

Do I settle for a body that’s not as strong and healthy as I know it can be? Or do I kill animals to build my body up? Could I possibly come up with a solution to satisfy both parts of me? Will I spin my wheels forever, hoping I’ll figure out a solution but never actually shifting anything, and never seeing the results I want?

I have been vegetarian so long that my body is literally made of plant material, on a molecular level. You can’t get much more “identity level” than that. I also want to live a long time, and be youthful, attractive, and strong. I know I can be that, but I feel like my diet is in the way of those goals.

So I’m at an impasse with myself. My various competing identities are in gridlock with one another.


Identity level beliefs can be great for getting you through the difficult times of fatherhood, for carrying you through war alive and mentally stable. They can be terrible when they anchor you to depression and worthlessness. And they can be burdensome when they come into conflict.

An identity level crisis is disorienting because you feel untethered from yourself and from your life. You don’t know who you are anymore, or what you’re capable of because you’re outside of the box you had created for yourself. It’s tempting to grasp onto the first stability that comes along. That’s how cults work, and why people are so very fanatical about them.

But here’s the real answer: question everything, assume nothing. Is it true?

Do animals understand and suffer?
Do loving people have to be non violent?
Can I get strong as a vegetarian?
Can I have a happy life without being strong?

Ask until you’re out of questions, and then ask more. You’ll figure out how to unravel the gridlock eventually, if you go deep enough into what you really believe and what’s really motivating you.

As for me, there’s no tidy conclusion. I don’t know what I’ll do. Identity shifts are hard work.

For what it’s worth, you should keep your footprint as light as possible. Try not to believe more than you have to, especially not about yourself.

The Life of Aaron Swartz

If you’re not a geek you may not have heard who Aaron Swartz is, or that he recently killed himself. If you are a geek, you haven’t heard much else since it happened a few days ago.

Most the blogosphere is alive talking about his death. I want to talk about his life.

Aaron was a very smart geek. He won the ArsDigita Prize in 2000, when he was 12 years old. At 14 he coauthored the specifications for RSS. RSS is the technology the entire internet uses to keep track of blog posts, among other things—if you’re reading this in a feed reader like Google Reader, you are using Aaron’s work. He helped write the code layer of the Creative Commons license. He cofounded, one of the biggest sites on the internet, and became wealthy around 20 years old after reddit was sold. He started The list goes on, he was a stud.

He killed himself when he was 26 years old.

The news hit me harder than I expected. I didn’t know him personally, but I did read his blog when he wrote, and I knew his story. But that’s not the reason his death hit. I’ll tell you the reason in a moment.

Aaron was about 2 years younger than I am. Most people can just be sad about losing a genius kid too early, but I have to face more than that. He and I are not only about the same age, but we share many of the same skills. If you had compared us at 11 years old and asked: who will be more successful? Who will have more of an impact? It would have been a toss up by almost any metric.

But our paths began to diverge as he made more broadminded choices than I did. I built my first major web application around the same age that he build The Info Network. Technically they are similarly complex, but The Info Network was wikipedia before wikipedia existed, and mine was a toy for video game players who wanted to organize tournaments. He got the ArsDigita prize and got on the radar of important people. I got a D in social studies.

And the pattern continues. While I was learning similar things, and doing basically trivial things with my knowledge, he was building RSS, reddit, creative commons, demand progress, and more. And maybe it sounds like hubris, but I know that the difference isn’t that he’s a genius and I’m not. I’m confident that I could do any of the individual things that he did. The difference is that I didn’t fucking do it.

The difference is that instead of applying for ycombinator at 18, I got married and took on 2 step children, and anchored myself in a no man’s land of technology. And it wasn’t an accident: I considered ycombinator. I considered moving to San Fransisco or Boston, the tech hubs of the world. But I decided I “couldn’t” because I prioritized having a family, probably too early.

I decided over and over not to do the Big Thing because it was too big without a network, too hard without support, too much with a mortgage and mouths to feed.

And Aaron’s success also isn’t an accident. He thought very deeply about working on important problems. He was extremely circumspect when reddit sold, and wrote that people were missing the point of entrepreneurship, that it could be so much more. He thought that it was all of our duties to work on truly important problems, and that’s how he lived.

And for all the “impressive” things I get pats on the back for, none of them has had the impact of any one of Aaron’s projects. And it’s my fault. It’s not because he’s a genius and I could never do that. It’s my out of whack priorities.

Here’s why I’m really upset about Aaron’s death. Follow me here:

  1. The reason his death hit me so hard is that in a different life, I imagine that I am him,
  2. but I’ve made different, maybe worse, choices than he did, so I’m not him,
  3. but it’s okay, because he is him, I don’t need to be him as long as he is.
  4. And that’s the thing now. He’s gone, and now it falls to us who remain to take up his work.

I told myself I could skate before because people like Aaron were out there doing what I could and should be doing. And now Aaron’s not there, and I realize it’s all a bullshit cop out.

So, to honor his memory and his philosophy I’m re-evaluating my priorities and the projects I’m working on. I realize that I need to expand my support network like he did, and I need to have the courage to stick to my vision of a better world, just like he did.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz 1986-2013

Thanks for keeping us honest Aaron, and thanks for all your hard work.

I Choose Everything

I’ve spent a lot of time considering not only what should go on this site, but also what I should focus on in my life. I like a lot of different things. I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about psychology and spirituality, which I write about here. Most people don’t realize I’m also an artist, a professional software developer, a math enthusiast, an entrepreneur, an improv comedian, and more (so much more…).

The perennial problem for people like me is too many options. What do I do with my time? With my life? What should I focus on?

I go through phases where I want to focus on different things, hoping I can finally settle, but it never works out. If I do too much of one thing I like, I miss the other things I like. I get bored and listless.

So I decided to embrace my inner polymath, and just do All The Things. I choose everything.

So, to commemorate my decision, I have spread my wings a little. This blog will not change, I like it talking about what it talks about. But now I’ve built two new places to support my other two major areas of interest.

The first is, which has a selection of my paintings for download and for sale. Buy all the prints so I have lots of money and I can write really good posts for you.

The other is Github is where all the cool kids in technology keep their software source code, and I’m super cool so a lot of my work is there too. If you’re curious about my technical work and thoughts, check it out.


The downside to spreading my attention is maybe that I’ll do less of one particular thing or I won’t be as good at it a someone who does it all the time. The practical reality is that if I try to do one thing for too long, I burn out, so I’m not really doing it “all the time” anyway.

The upside is that really interesting things happen when multiple disciplines overlap. I’m among a sea of software developers who can write Ruby, but how many of them are professional artists? There are lots of artists, but how many artists also have a solid foundation in physics? Blogging is crowded, but how many personal development bloggers can also write enterprise scale web applications?

I built Kenrose because I am a writer and a software developer. What will I do next? I suspect that “synergy” may be more valuable than the lack of focus costs, but that remains to be seen. What do you think?

The Herd and Changing the World

I’m forced to listen to pop music almost everyday thanks to the predictable tastes of the 13 year old girl I live with. The thing about pop music is that it’s palatable in the same sense candy is palatable. Most people love candy because it stimulates our animal brains; I don’t like candy that much, but it’s difficult to find candy that’s actively disgusting.

That candy contains no nutritional value is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that you want people to like apples instead. Candy is palatable and gives them a jolt of good feeling, therefore it’s a huge industry.

Pop music is more insidious than candy, because it can stimulate our brain on at least two levels. The first level is the same as candy, the driving beats and catchy hooks stimulate our animal brain. But the real power of pop music is to give people a jolt of the warm and fuzzies by confirming what they already believe or desire.

The Secret of Popularity

It’s not a very good secret, to be honest. It’s obvious. If you want to be popular, make everyone around you right. If you want your products or art to be popular, make it make everyone who sees it right.

Pop music is a case study in finding a market and catering to it. They sing to college kids about getting super drunk and blowing your rent money on drugs. They sing to 11 year old girls about everlasting love with a boy who is wealthy, cute, and malleable. They sing to insecure young men about how cool it is to be rich and tough and how many girls will fuck you if you are.

These aren’t revelations to anyone, they are deeply held beliefs and values that are simply being reflected back verbatim.

And it’s not just young, dumb kids who go for this, this is the human condition. Part of the reason I’m a fan of the band Tool is that they confirm my worldview that exploration of the mind and universe is worthwhile and that there’s more to experience than meets the eye. I like Alex Grey because his artwork reflects my experience of the world, verbatim, back to me.

Fox News faithfully parrots all the fear and certainty that their audience feels right back to them. MSNBC provides the same mirror for liberals.

Who’s right or wrong doesn’t matter. People buy what they want to be true.

The Anti-herd

On one hand, you’re weird because you’re reading a blog that consistently details the ways you are wrong. On the other hand, this is just another mirror. I’m just parroting your deeply held belief that that our lives could be more meaningful, and that society is flawed. I’m just supporting your value of curiosity, and perhaps your desire to feel aloof, intellectually superior to those chewing cud lost among the herd.

In what may be a feat of self congratulation, I believe there is a distinction between what we do here and pop music or Fox News. The difference is that we are capable of having this conversation.

Acknowledging this condition of perpetual confirmation would undermine the belief structures of Fox News viewers and pop music listeners, and therefore would disintegrate the whole enterprise (quickly giving way to new organizations that would gladly fill the void).

On the other hand, the same acknowledgement strengthens our worldview and method of being, much like science done correctly systemically and continuously exposes its own weaknesses, which keeps it strong. Our constant questions about what is truly real and valuable tends to fight against the entropy of human bias, even while it is driven by the very same bias.

Sales and Change

There are two lessons here. The first is never to let go of challenging yourself. If you have the inclination to join this anti-herd of introspection, grip it and don’t let go, because it can only make you stronger.

The other, more difficult, lesson is that your art, the product of your life’s work, will not be judged by you or by this tribe. It will be judged by the world. And the world wants what it wants, not what you wish it wanted.

The tastes and beliefs of the world don’t change all at once, much like an evolving species does’t change all at once. They make almost imperceptible shifts, and you can only see the effect over a long period.

If you want to be a strong person, question everything, and assume you’re not correct.

If you want to sell, confirm that your audience is correct, always.

If you want to change the world, sell, but subvert the message. Show them a mirror, but make it a funhouse mirror. Show them a reflection that’s recognizable but deliberately distorted.

Show them an apple, but make sure they see candy. You’ll sell the candy, and they’ll buy the apple.