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.


On Thursday morning I started driving from Florida to Austin, Texas. My Cadillac was as full as it could be while still being able to make a 1,000 mile journey. I was a little stressed because the lady whose house I had arranged to rent had backed out of the arrangement. I was headed to Texas with nowhere to stay, but the wheels were already in motion, as they say. Texas or bust.

Somewhere between Tallahassee and Pensacola I had an epiphany and I began tailgating other drivers.


If you look the bottom left corner of my driver’s license you’ll see the phrase “Safe Driver.” I like to say that I drive like an old person. I’m not a skilled driver per se, but I am very careful. I have never had so much as a speeding ticket in all the years I’ve been driving. I drive slowly and defensively. I slow down at intersections to look for oncoming traffic, even if I have the green light. I leave plenty of distance between myself and the car ahead. I don’t want to risk any damage should something go wrong on the road.

I used to drive a Chrysler Gem to get around town, which is an electric car throttled by government mandate to only 26 miles per hour, which is slow even on residential streets. Other drivers would get impatient with me, they would tailgate me and  overtake the car, even if it meant going into oncoming traffic to do it. They would always accelerate quickly from there, vindicated and free.

A minute later, without fail, I would pull up right next to them again, while they were stopped at a traffic light, or if they had hit slower traffic. I learned from my Gem that it never paid to be impatient on residential streets. Speeding and tailgating are pointless even if you value the extra 10 seconds you might gain from them, since the traffic system itself will prevent you from realizing those gains.

Just relax and go with the flow of traffic, you’ll get there in due time. Don’t stress out about jams or detours, just enjoy the moment, and get where you’re going when the opportunity presents itself.


One of my rules with long distance highway travel is that I never exceed 9 miles an hour over the speed limit. Statistically, I’m unlikely to be pulled over for going only 9 miles an hour over, as many state statues have the threshold of “lucrative citation” set at 10 miles per hour over. I also tend to stick with packs of cars moving that speed, like a herd of gazelle hoping to avoid the blue and red flashing lion lurking in the underbrush on the shoulder of the highway.

When you’re traveling 17 hours, those extra nine miles per hour add up to about 150 miles over the course of the trip, which is about 15% of the total journey. In that case, it makes sense to push the limits in a calculated and systematic way.

I was driving West on I-10 through the Florida panhandle, with my cruise control set to exactly 79 miles per hour. Every time I would see a slower moving car in the fast lane, I’d either slow down the cruise control or just turn it off well in advance, so I could maintain several car lengths of space between us. The distance made me comfortable and ensured we wouldn’t disturb each other or collide.

I would be annoyed because I wanted to make good time, but these people were in my way, going more slowly than I wanted to go. And their speed determined my speed. You know those laws that were once enforced, that people know about, but that seem optional these days? I waited for the space I needed to pass the slow drivers on the right, so I could continue my 79 mile per hour cruise. And I would stew the whole time I was going only 67 or 71 miles per hour.

At the first available opportunity, I’d speed ahead with vindication and freedom.

I was approaching another slow-moving vehicle in the fast lane, and I couldn’t go around him. I reflexively reached for the cruise control switch, and I thought,

“Doesn’t this guy know that some people want to go fast in the fast lane?”

And as soon as I asked, a smart part of me retorted,

“No. You’re staying four or five car lengths back and matching his speed. How is he supposed to know you want to go faster?”

Oh shit. Tailgating as a public service: “Excuse me kind sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m in an awful hurry, would you mind if I passed?”

So I didn’t flick the cruise control off. I edged out of my comfort zone, and sped toward his car. I got within a car length, and just as I was going to lose my nerve, he slid into the slow lane to let me pass.

And I was so grateful to him. Letting me pass in that moment held a strange emotional weight, like he acknowledged that I was driving forward at a speed he wasn’t comfortable with, and he accommodated my path forward just because I “asked” by pressuring him just enough for him to notice I was there.

From that moment on the panhandle forward, when I knew the other driver could get over for me, I would drive close enough for them to notice me and they would move. I would thank them in my mind every time. In heavier traffic, when movement wasn’t possible, I simply turned cruise control off and went with the flow. When other even faster moving traffic bore down on my rear bumper, I would happily move over for them as well: you’re going faster and taking bigger risks than I personally would, but best of luck to you!

By the way, I’m not talking about driving.

How to Break Your Limits

Gema is 23 years old and might be gay. She’s not sure. (Not news.)

The problem about being maybe-gay is that Gema lives with her hyper-conservative parents, and has no legal rights as an unmarried Muslim woman in Indonesia.

She was in a bind. Her parents expect her to find a nice boy (of their choosing probably), get married, and make lots of babies. At 23, she’s older than any of her sisters or cousins were when they all got married, and the family is starting to look bad to their friends.

But Gema wants to get educated, wants to experiment with girls, wants to be her own person. Then, and only then, she might consider settling down with a nice boy. Or girl, maybe.

But she’s stuck. She must live with her parents until she’s married to a boy. She’s never had sex with a boy, nor will she be able to until marriage. But she’s also never felt attracted to a boy. The couple of times she’s had sex with girls have been fraught with shame and doubt.

Most countries expect immigrants to have a college education, something out of Gema’s reach. Even if that weren’t true, any visa she could get would require parental consent.

She has no options.

You knew there was a punchline…

When Gema told me her story, the first question I asked her was what the age of majority is in Indonesia. She didn’t really know what that meant, but she knew that people were considered adults at 18 in Indonesia.

I told her I had good news for her.

First, I told her, you are a legal adult in your country. I know you think your parents have control over you legally, but they actually don’t. The idea that you stay with your parents and listen to them until you’re married is purely a cultural constraint, not a legal constraint. That means that if you choose to, you may leave your parents’ house whenever you want. You are free.

I also told her that an Indonesian adult does not need parental consent to obtain a visa. Again, she’s free to make her own choices.

Finally I told her, you are not responsible for the choices or feelings of your family members. You cannot make them happy, and you also cannot make them sad. The way they respond to your actions is entirely their choice. If they choose to feel shame as a result of you living the life you want, that is not your fault. It is entirely up to them. You are only responsible for your own choices, not for the choices of your family.

Then, she lived happily ever after.

Just Kidding

Gema politely thanked me, but restated her position:

There’s no law, she said, that specifically prevents me from moving out. But there’s also no law that specifically frees me. She said Indonesia just doesn’t have any law about the parent/child relationship as it relates to the age of the child. She told me that if she said “I’m over 18, so I’m free to decide my own life,” her parents tell her to shut up, they are an Eastern family, and she’s talking nonsense.

So I do what I always do when faced with an inscrutable question: I scrute it. I dug into the Indonesian constitution and law.

I told her that Chapter 10 of the Indonesian constitution guarantees that all citizens (Gema is an adult citizen) have the right to choose education, work, citizenship, and where they live. They also have the right, according to chapter 10, to express their opinion, to have freedom of thought and conscience, religion, and they have the right to not be falsely imprisoned or enslaved.

I explained to her that “age of majority” is the age when children legally cease to be minors and assume control over their persons, actions and decisions, thereby terminating the legal control and legal responsibilities of their parents over and for them.

That hit her like a ton of bricks. I saw the light flash across her face. She looked confused for a moment before widening her eyes. The law is on her side. She is not stuck. She is an autonomous person.

Gema immediately applied and was accepted for a work visa in Singapore. She might even meet a cute girl there.

You Are Gema

Gema had been “stuck” for years, laboring under this false restriction. She had a limiting belief, that her parents could control her every move, and that she was powerless to stop them.

For Gema, freedom was one google search away—just a quick glance through the actual laws she thought chained her down. Just a few minutes and Gema’s old chains were broken. Those chains were in her mind the whole time.

But I didn’t tell you this story because I think you particularly care about an Indonesian woman named Gema. I told you this story because you are Gema. We are all Gema, in our own ways.

Consider your desires, and think about why you haven’t fulfilled them yet. What limitations have you built for yourself that prevent you from being fulfilled?

When To Lie To Get Ahead

Honesty is more difficult than you think, and the naive approach to honesty will sink your business. Lie to get ahead.

It was painless and it only took 15 minutes. The only disturbing part was watching the smoke rise from my testicles while an early-20s blonde trainee watched everything. Dr. Stein had pulled my vas deferens out of a small incision in my scrotum and used a red hot clamp to bisect and cauterize them. The rising smoke meant I would never have children.

Mine was the nearly 17,000th vasectomy Dr. Stein had performed, not including the 30 he performed the same day he snipped me.

I don’t know how many men had lied to him like I had.

The thing about vasectomies is that they are considered irreversible, so no doctor who wants to keep his license will perform them on a man under 30, especially not one who has no children.

At 23, I had been married for nearly 5 years, and I had two kids. That they are step children is an irrelevant detail to me. My mother and her sister were adopted by my grandparents, so half my family isn’t genetically related to me (or to each other) anyway. Those boys are mine, sperm or not.

As rewarding as raising children can be and has been, I do not want more. I dodged more (genetic) bullets than Keanu Reeves in a trench coat. Although I am personally fit, healthy, sane, and capable, I am carrying enough genetic crud to populate an asylum. Pathological addiction, clinical depression, schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, liver disease, and crooked teeth. The list continues. The ability to get a gnarly tan doesn’t make up for that. I have no interest in playing genetic roulette.

I told Dr. Stein I had two kids, but didn’t mention that they are my step kids. I capitalized on my receding hairline to add 10 years to my age, claiming I was 33, and of course I “forgot” my ID that day. I had cash, so they didn’t ask questions.

I don’t consider my actions dishonest in a meaningful sense, even though they share superficial similarities with dishonesty.

What is Honesty For?

Honesty is marvelously useful. In many ways the ability to establish trust makes our history as a species and current society possible. It’s such a useful concept that we’re all indoctrinated into believing it’s a fundamental good, so we do it by default, which normally works well in aggregate.

The reality is that honesty is useful because it fulfills specific purposes depending on the context, not because giving everyone completely accurate information is always better.

Dr. Stein doesn’t care how old my testicles are or how many children they’ve spurted out. Dr. Stein is constrained by regulatory pressure to only treat men in a certain demographic because if he treats the wrong person, he can be sued later. I talked to him in some detail about this while he fondled me: he believed he was saving the world. That every baby he stopped from being born was one less baby destroying the environment. In a vacuum, he would be delighted to snip a 23 year old kid before he had a chance to inflict his crotch fruit on the world.

The only reason he would decline to treat me is because of the liability he faced. By materially misrepresenting my age and paternity status to Dr. Stein, I had relieved him of that liability, fulfilling the underlying purpose that honesty would normally serve in that context, while getting what I wanted in the process.

No kids for me, no lawsuit for him.

Information vs. Message

You agree with me even if you think you don’t. You may feel guilty about it, but you lie all the time in order to tell the truth.

Information-level Conversation
Her: Do these ’80s leggings make me look old?
You: Of course not dear, you haven’t changed since ’82.

Message-level Conversation
Her: Will you support my ego by affirming my continuing attractiveness?
You: I think you’re attractive, I love you, and I plan to continue loving you.

The interesting thing about the exchange isn’t that the information was a lie while the message was the truth. The really interesting thing is that if you chose to answer the information-level question with accurate information, the message-level conversation would become:

Her: Do you still desire me and love me?
You: No.

Which is a hurtful lie, and you’re an asshole for saying it. Where’s your “simple” truth now?

Honesty in Business

You absolutely must tell the truth in business. If your partners and customers can’t count on you to deliver, then you won’t last more than a transaction or two. However, if you deliver accurate information you will stagnate as an employee and fail as a business owner. What you need to deliver is deeper, message-level truth.

The saying goes that you should never see a professional sweat. Everyone agrees with that because it sounds noble, but actually it means you need to lie to your customers. And you should still agree with it.

It means that even if you’re barely holding things together and you have no idea how you’re going to make good on your contract or if the lights will be on in your office by the close of business, you need to tell your customers that everything is under control because what they need is peace of mind. When you deliver (like you always do) all will be well. You’re a professional, so don’t let them see you sweat.

There are people who can’t figure out the difference between information-level and message-level honesty. They are the gray beard programmers who are proud to be “blunt,” but who stagnated in their career 15 years ago, and now maintain legacy systems from the boiler room. They are the naive entrepreneurs who write boring drivel on their ghost-town blogs and make a pittance before giving up on business entirely in favor of a paycheck from Acme.

Stop “saying it like it is” and pretending that’s a virtue.

Honesty has its uses, but use it wisely.

Photo Credit: Honest Ed’s by Stewart C. Russell

How to Get Your Wallet Back

This is a story of empathy brought you by StoryCorps, a radio show that shares stories from ordinary people. Julio Diaz, the storyteller, gives us a shining case in point about choosing love over fear, just like in “No Such Thing as Monsters”. The acceptable response was anger and violence, but Julio chose love and empathy. Listen to his story below, or read the transcript.

Julio Diaz gets his wallet back "Julio Diaz gets his wallet back"

Transcript of the audio:

So I get off the train, I’m walking toward the stairs, and this young teenager pulls out a knife. He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, “here you go.”

He starts to leave and as he’s walking away, I’m like, “hey, wait a minute, you forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

He’s looking at me like, what’s going on here? He asked me, “Well, why are you doing this?”

I’m like, “Well, I don’t know man. If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was go get dinner, and if you really want to join me, hey, you’re more than welcome.” So I’m like, “Look, you can follow me if you want.” I just felt, maybe he really needs help.

So, we go into the diner where I normally eat, we sit down in the booth, and the manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi. The kid was like “Man, you know everybody here, do you own this place?”

I’m like, “No, I just eat here a lot.”

He’s like, “But you’re even nice to the dishwasher!”

I’m like, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

So he’s like, “Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.”

So I just asked him in the end, I’m like, “What is it that you want out of life?”

He just had almost a sad face. Either he couldn’t answer me or he didn’t want to.

The bill came and I look at him, and I’m like, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill, because you have my money and I can’t pay for this, so… If you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”

He didn’t even think about it, he’s like “Yeah, okay, here you go.” He gave me my wallet back.

And I gave him $20, I figured maybe it’ll help him, I don’t know. And when I gave him the $20, I asked him to give me something in return: his knife. And he gave it to me.

It’s funny because when I told my mom about what happened, no mom wants to hear this but, she said, you were always the type of kid that if someone asked you the time you’d give them your watch. I don’t know, I figure that if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.

No Such Thing as Monsters

I had a powerful moment of transformation as a child that I’m going to share with you because it’s an important lesson about psychological scripts, empathy, and the essential humanity of all people.

In fifth grade, my scars were still horror movie material. My skull was indented, my eye socket hadn’t been fully rebuilt yet, and skin from my thigh covered a large portion of my face and head. I tried to grow my hair out to cover it, but I ended up looking like Jr. Comb-over Frankenstein.

I used to get a lot of shit from my classmates, and I didn’t respond well to it back then (I was only 10). I’d lash out impotently and end up getting myself in trouble instead of my classmates.

A turning point was on a class trip. We rode a bus from our school in northern Kentucky to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama—a six hour drive. Part way through that long haul, the back of the bus conversation turned to me.

The kids decided it was funny to try to keep their distance from me because my scars were so “monstrous,” like I was something from a horror movie that you’d fall over yourself to get away from.

I could only be compared to Quasimodo and the Swamp Thing so much before it was bound to express as resentment and low self esteem

As a boy of 10, I was ill equipped to respond. On one hand, I was getting off on being the center of attention, which was rare. On the other, the taunting was tearing me up inside. I could only be compared to Quasimodo and the Swamp Thing so much before it was bound to express as resentment and low self esteem.

So I played along. I’d approach someone hands outstretched, playing my part, and watching them recoil in horror. I’d make ghoul noises and lunge, as everyone jumped backward like I was a ravenous animal.

As the sinking feeling in my belly became too much too bear, I finally sat in the aisle seat right next to a girl named Megan, trapping her between the window and I. Playing along, she clawed at the window, feigning horror.

Then something just snapped inside me.

A voice welled up, as if from my future self. I spoke quietly enough so that only she could really hear me even though we were surrounded by cackling fifth graders. Without any kind of anger or desperation or negativity in my voice, and looking directly into her eyes, I said: “Megan, this isn’t funny. My scars aren’t that bad. I’m a person too. I’m a kid just like you.”

She stopped dead, and looked right back at me—really looked. She said “You’re right, I’m sorry. Your scars really aren’t that bad.”

As if infected by my calm, Megan announced with some uncharacteristic authority that the game was over. Everyone settled down on cue.

That moment affects how I interact with people to this day, on several levels.

No matter how callous, rude, arrogant, spiteful, or negative someone is, everyone craves deep human connection.

If you create that judgement and angst free context for a connection to form, normally looking into someone’s eyes and speaking from your heart is enough to break the spell of whatever script they are playing in their head—to connect on a genuine level.

Even if you are the victim of that person’s bad behavior, remember that they are playing a part in their head that makes sense to them and would probably make sense to you if you were in their shoes. Remember that, and use that empathy to create calm and understanding instead of anger and defensiveness.

The other aspect of what happened that affects me profoundly is my new perspective. In that moment I made the conscious decision to let go of anger and victimhood. I decided to forgive people who maybe screw up but who mostly are also just trying to do the best they can. I decided to just be the best person I knew how to be, and help others do the same, even if they were way out of line.

You’ll play the role of the victim and that of the persecutor during your lifetime. That’s almost inevitable. The choice you have to make is between anger and calm. Connection or separation. Between fear and love.

When you’re faced with that choice, I hope you remember my experience.

Transcend Your Tribe

Humans are tribal animals. We trust and mimic members of our group, while we distrust and malign outsiders. That worked 200,000 years ago, but it’s a bad strategy now, and one 1950s experiment is a fantastic case in point.

In the Robber’s Cave Experiment, researchers pitted two groups of homogeneous, preteen boys against each other.

The results were riveting, yet strangely unsurprising:

The Robber’s Cave Experiment

Tribal Differentiation

The boys in the experiment were all 11 or 12 years old, white, and middle class. They were screened to make sure they were normally adjusted, and to make sure no boy knew any other boy prior to the experiment.

These boys were culturally identical.

Upon separation the groups formed identities—one became “The Rattlers”, the other “The Eagles”. The identities formed independently of one another, being separated by some distance and for several days.

The Rattlers formed an identity based on being “rough”, like a pee wee biker gang, complete with irreverence toward authority and language unbecoming of a 12 year old boy in the 1950s.

The Eagles formed roughly the opposite identity, like a boy scout troop. They fancied themselves honorable, trustworthy, and law abiding.

Throughout the experiment the boys on each side—boys who were specifically chosen to be identical—were observed to adhere to the norms of whatever group they belonged to. Rattlers cussed, Eagles were polite.

Tribal Warfare

Once the tribes had formed, the researchers pitted the groups against each other. They competed as teams in sporting events and the like.

Acrimony among rival tribe members formed almost immediately. Miniature feuds played out over this period of conflict. Camping lodges were ransacked, fist fights erupted. These hostilities actually forced this segment of the experiment to be cut short, because they escalated quickly to potentially dangerous, physical conflict.

Perfectly normal, culturally identical boys.

Tribal Reconciliation

The final phase of the experiment involved giving both groups superordinate goals, i.e. goals that both groups needed to achieve but that neither group could accomplish without the help of the other. One superordinate task was pulling a broken down truck back to camp with a large rope, which required the combined strength of both tribes.

During this phase the hostilities ceased, and gave way to comradery and intergroup friendship formation.

By working for a common good, the two groups which had so easily formed and fought, were able to unite and integrate.

Tribal Object Lesson

The Robber’s Cave Experiment is an object lesson in in-group / out-group bias. It demonstrates clearly that:

  • Our tribal affiliations are completely arbitrary.
  • The groups we affiliate with “inject” traits into us that aren’t necessarily authentic.

Arbitrary Affiliations

Just like the Rattlers and Eagles, the tribes you align with are mostly arbitrary. You were born with your ethnicity, cultural background, and socioeconomic status.

A great example of tribal affiliation in action is politics.

In America there are two basic political positions: Republican and Democrat. They actually don’t differ significantly in practice, but the idea is that Republicans are for less taxation and fewer government services, versus Democrats who are for redistribution of wealth, and protecting the disenfranchised.

Let me repeat, however: in practice, the two parties are almost identical. They have superficially different positions, just like the rattlers and the eagles, but they actually just serve as rally points for parallel tribes.

If you ask an American who is interested in the way their country is run—really interested—what political party they affiliate with, you will find almost universally that they affiliate with neither major party, or they affiliate only begrudgingly since there is no serious alternative. Anyone who strongly and unreservedly identifies with either major party is either just rattling sabers, or they are selling you something.

Arbitrary Traits

The rattlers choice of “roughness” was meaningless. The sole purpose of that outlook was to cohere the group. Each of those boys unconsciously accepted the meaningless group norm purely for the sake of acceptance in that group. You do the same thing.

Back to politics, since it’s quintessential tribalism.

  • I already mentioned that Democrats are stereotypically in favor of giving to the poor and disenfranchised. Providing support and services to people who otherwise would fall through the cracks. It may surprise you that Republicans, not Democrats, give more of their income and volunteer more of their time to charity.

    This is because while a rallying cry of the Democrats is charity, it’s easier and provides equal tribal credibility to talk about giving, rather than actually giving which is costly and hard to advertise.

  • A recurring theme in variety shows is interviewing attendees of political rallies to demonstrate how hilariously ignorant they are about that which they claim to support.

    Just one example is Sarah Palin supporters showing up en masse to get her autograph, while knowing nothing about her. They are asked basic questions about what they are for or against, but they can’t answer.

    This happens because the traits and beliefs of Palin and her tribe are secondary to signaling tribal affiliation.

Transcending Your Tribe

We come once again to the slashing and burning portion of my message.

Whether you cuss like a Rattler or obey like an Eagle, maybe you didn’t realize what a profound effect your tribe had on you. You didn’t know that your way of relating to the world has more to do with the people you spend time with than your internal values.

Now you know.

But what now? How do you figure out what you actually value, and what is just tribal bullshit?

Here’s how to begin transcending your tribe:

  1. Identify the tribes to which you believe you belong. Libertarian, Vegetarian, Pastafarian, Entrepreneur, Geek, whatever.
  2. Ask one or two of your closest friends to identify the tribes to which you belong. Tribes are complicated and intertwined, it’s best to get other perspectives.
  3. Combine the lists of tribes. Add your friends’ suggestions only if you feel they are accurate. If you reject a tribe they included, that likely means you share traits and beliefs with the tribe they wrote down which is why they think you’re in it. But if you don’t self-identify with that tribe, it’s unlikely you’ve unconsciously adopted the traits from that tribe, so it’s not relevant to this exercise.
  4. For each tribe in your combined list, write down the stereotypical traits and beliefs of tribe members. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, just think of maybe three to five traits.
  5. Put a check mark next to each stereotypical trait that you share in common with your tribes.
  6. You now have a list of “suspect traits”: traits that are likely to be inauthentic. Traits you unconsciously accepted as part of your tribal membership.
  7. For each suspect trait, try to identify the core value that drives that trait. Also try to identify the actions you take that satisfy that core value. If you find that difficult or impossible, you should throw out that trait. It’s not you. You thought you believed it, but you don’t.

Here’s a quick example, loosely based on one of my tribes:

  • Tribe: Vegetarian
  • Stereotypical Traits: Love animals, Militant, Compassionate, Wear weird clothes like burlap shoes, long haired hippy, liberal, healthy, thin.
  • Traits I share: Love animals, Healthy.
  • Suspect Traits:

    • Love animals. Do I really love animals? My related core value is that I should maximize happiness for all living things (Altruistic Hedonism). Do I do that? I don’t buy any animal products. I don’t buy any products tested on animals. I volunteer for two different local animal rescue organizations. I think my values and actions are aligned, so my “suspect trait” passes as authentic.
    • Healthy. Do I really value health? I do eat really well, while many vegetarians do not. Historically I’ve been a workout fanatic, but recently I’ve been pretty sedentary. I did just rejoin Tae Kwon Do, however. I think I sort of value health, but it’s not high on my priority list.

So in my pet example I’ve identified at least one tribal value I have that might not be really authentic: Health. I like being healthy, but am I committed to it? Passionate about it? Probably not.

What do you want to value, but you have to admit that deep down you really don’t? What inauthentic tribal baggage do you carry?

Bonus Incentive

I’m really curious about what this exercise can turn up, so I’m offering an incentive:

If you reply publicly with this exercise before midnight Friday, April the 10th, having found at least one inauthentic tribal value, I’ll create a free header for your website (or a similar graphic of your choosing).

I want to have so many replies that I regret making the offer, so get cracking!

Is Your Face Real?

“Is your patch real?”

My eye patch is a conversation piece. Many people ask about it, a lot assume it’s either fake or temporary (it’s neither). “Do I need it?” some ask.

Some people reflexively yell “Yarrr!!” at the sight of me, like their ancestors evolved some pirate instinct that preserved their genes from pillaging while other, less impulsive genotypes fell by the cutlass.

The patch is complicated. I didn’t start wearing it until I was 16, about 10 years after the car accident that gave me my scars.

I’ll talk about the accident later. For now, a little before and after:


After (Click to Enlarge)


People tell themselves they don’t judge based on appearance, but they are wrong.

Before the patch, I was the dude in the grocery store you stole glances at because his face was burned. I was the women with a fucked spine and bent limbs, making her way through the store on one of those motorized carts.

Those people, bless their hearts, are “victims.” The first thing you see is the scars. You might feel real empathy for them afterward and wonder how their life is, or whatever, but the very first thing that flies through your brain is “Whoa, what the fuck?

That was me.

The Patch

I put on the patch after a surgery when I was 16. I was a senior in high school and I had the surgery done during spring break, so I didn’t have time to heal before going back to school. The patch protected my face during the couple of months it was healing. At the end of the couple months, I was attached to it, so I just kept it.

At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had changed because it wasn’t an analytical decision. Even though I had never worn a patch before, and even though it was no longer medically necessary in the strict sense, I felt naked without it. I realized eventually that, as I said, the patch is complicated. That it was part psychology, part branding. Part for my benefit, and part for everyone elses’.

I am stuck with the scars, but the patch is my choice. The impression people form about me is more accurate when I wear the patch than when I don’t.

In putting the patch on, I went from “Whoa, what the fuck?” to “Why is that guy wearing an eye patch?”

Instead of “What’s wrong with his face?” it became “Is that patch for real?”

That time was really transformative for me. It was the first time I started getting serious attention from girls, the first time I became really “popular”. The patch is distinctive, memorable, some people think it’s sexy. Most of all the patch replaces that instinctual first impression of “victim” with just “interesting”.

Darn those superficial people!

I’ve told people this before and without fail, every single one swears up and down that they are different. That they wouldn’t judge me that way. They are wrong.

It’s precognitive. It happens in that primal moment when you feel something, before your front brain reflects on your feelings, before it filters the perception through your “I am a moral person” and “I am not prejudiced by appearances” filters.

I know that happens to you because it happens to me too. I know because the way people treated me before and after was like night and day. Teachers, peers, and total strangers, without exception.

It’s alright though, it’s not our fault. Of course it’s superficial bullshit, and of course it’s not ideal, but it’s what we have to work with. We can’t (yet) rewire our brains to correct bugs. The most we can do is own the bugs and compensate.

So the first step is really getting comfortable with the idea that you—yourself, not some hypothetical reader who isn’t you—make snap judgments. It’s okay, we all do it, even the burn victim at the grocery store. We feel bad about it. It violates our self image as rational, autonomous people to admit it, but the first step to solving a problem is to admit we have one.

My name is Pete, and I make snap judgments

Good. Now that that’s over, let’s learn what we can from the insight.

Insight One: In an ocean of sameness, difference will shine.

The common factor between me, face burn guy, spina bifida woman, and a guy with a gaudy handlebar mustache is that we’re all weird. You’ve never seen someone quite like us before. In the ocean of bland faces you see daily, we stick out like a neon orange buoy.

Just like you probably take a second look at unusually attractive or unusually ugly people, you also can’t help but steal a glance at the guy with the funny facial hair.

Insight Two: All differences are not created equal.

There is a categorical difference between spina bifida and a handlebar mustache. Between distorted facial features and an eye patch.

One is a burden, the other is a choice. One reflects a victim while the other reflects panache.

Some differences are precategorized in our brains as bad. Bad: not having a face. Good: being a black man with light blue eyes.

No matter what you look like, it’s a mask for whatever is going on inside of you. Whether you choose a mohawk or a bob, jeans or spandex, makeup or au naturale. I do not physically have the choice to fade into the ocean of sameness. What I can choose is the way I stand out. It’s all superficial; it’s all masks.

But now that we know we’re stuck with them, what do we choose to do about it?

I make the choice every day to eschew my victim mask, because I am not a victim on the inside, so I don’t want to evoke victimhood on the outside. Instead I make the choice to put on the unusual mask, my patch.

What choices to do you make about appearances? Do they reflect your inner reality?

Hack the World: A Conspiracy of None


What I’m about to tell you is part of the painful slashing and burning you need to undertake in order to live an authentic life. It’s maybe the most important essay I’ve ever written. It’s longer than usual (around 2600 words), but if this idea is new to you, it might change your life. It certainly changed mine.

The society into which you were born has socialized you to believe to your core that its structure is inevitable, and moreover that it is “correct” in both a practical and moral sense.

This is a lie.

But who is the one lying to you? How did the system come to exist? If it’s a lie, what’s the truth?

A Conspiracy of None

There’s no cabal who enslaves you. No master plan to keep you docile and breeding. It’s natural selection operating on not a biological level, but a social level.

Social evolution selects the social structures that can self sustain within the environment of global politics, i.e. the environment formed by the other surviving social structures.

It’s a “conspiracy” with no conspirators. In fact, we are all part of the conspiracy, because the conspiracy to keep us fearful and obedient emerges as a consequence of everyone doing whatever they were doing already. No individual understands or controls it, they just behave naturally. Given the constraints of brains, beliefs, and environment, the “conspiracy” emerges through the collective interactions of billions of people.

The Birth of the Status Quo

The status quo exists because of arbitrary limitations on our biology and environment combine to form incentives that compete to produce the outcomes you see. The “status quo conspiracy” exists because the Equilibrium of incentives sustains it.

Nash Equilibrium and Stability

The Nash Equilibrium is a state in game theory in which all the players of a game play optimally given the strategy of the other players.


John Forbes Nash, the namesake of the Nash Equilibrium, was immortalized in the Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind.
Credit Peter Badge, CC BY-SA 3.0

Facts about Nash Equilibriums:

  1. Nash Equilibriums optimize each individual’s strategy in the game, but don’t necessarily optimize the whole game.

    That means that if the players all got together and agreed on an alternate strategy, they could “win” more. An example is a group of competing businesses coming together to form a cartel. Now instead of profiting almost nothing because competition drives the price down, they can all agree to sell at a certain, higher price at which everyone in the cartel makes more money overall. This is exactly what OPEC does with oil.

  2. Nash Equilibriums aren’t necessarily stable—sometimes the incentives for the individual players tend to undermine the whole game until that game collapses.

    Think of the recent economic collapse: the players in that game had every incentive to keep selling subprime mortgages, and no individual player could stop the spiral without agreeing on that strategy with all the other players (which didn’t and probably couldn’t have happened). As a result, the unstable structure of the financial system collapsed.

  3. Despite Nash Equilibriums not necessarily being stable, most of the systems you see on a day to day basis are stable.

    This is natural selection. Because of natural selection, the organisms in the world around you are able to propagate their species despite the overwhelming odds against any arbitrary cell structure being able to survive and reproduce. Similarly, most of the systems around you are stable despite the overwhelming odds that any given group of people, especially a large group, will implode.

The Structure of the Status Quo

The Parts of Social Evolution

Each ring within “Natural Selection” in the illustration above is like an organism unto itself: it can live, die, grow, consume, produce, reproduce, combine, split, communicate—everything a biological organism can do. The main difference between a biological organism and a larger structure as that as of this writing in 2010 we as organisms cannot change ourselves during our lifetime. We can only change as a species over time by recombining our DNA through sexual reproduction. The larger structures can grow teeth and wings without dying first.

The status quo is all about these structures interacting at various levels. Let’s start near the bottom, with your body and its parts.

Your Body

You form a physical structure: your body. The individual parts of your structure are important, but only insofar as they support the overall structure.

The skin on your feet, for example, would benefit from not being walked on, but the overall structure benefits from walking, so the needs of your feet skin are ignored. When the skin on your feet is damaged and unable to serve the system, then (and only then) will the system (you) stop to help the feet skin with medical attention, and only to the degree that it benefits the system.

It’s not in your interests to give your feet a life of comfort, but it is in your interests to keep them healthy enough to carry you places and not cause you pain.

Even important parts of the system can be sacrificed to save the overall system. For example, your leg is caught under a boulder while hiking on a remote trail. Normally you want to keep and care for your leg because having it is beneficial. High on that mountain trail though, the whole system is in jeopardy. The leg has to go.

This is a trait shared with the larger structures: the individual parts of a structure are only cared for insofar as they serve the interests of the structure. If their needs don’t affect the system, the system does nothing. If the parts jeopardize the system, the part goes.

Where the Similarity Breaks Down

We could review ad nauseum all the parallels between legs and the working class, between leadership structures and the brain, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. The point is that these structures behave like organisms competing to survive.

All that having been said, humans do differ from their individual parts and from social structures in a fundamental way. Unlike a cell, and unlike a body politic, you are conscious.

Muscle tissue, organs, feet—they have no subjective experience. They are entirely physical, to be treated as tools. But you are a mental creature. You, above your family, above your government, are an intrinsically psychological entity, defined by the continuity of your own consciousness.

So despite the larger structures treating you as if you are physical tissue to be used and disposed of, you are not, in fact, a tool. You, human, can choose to be more.

You, and organisms with similar consciousness, are an anomaly in the hierarchy of naturally selected structures: every other level of that hierarchy, cells and governments alike, exists to serve you.

They don’t serve because of a moral imperative. They don’t serve by the design of some external creator. The structures exist because they were selected to exist by the arbitrary laws of physics. Despite the weighty pressure of social evolution conspiring to keep you and everyone else in line, you alone in the hierarchy of these structures have the power to choose how to exist–to opt out of the larger structure.

Your Role in the Game

The larger structures behave exactly like your body in that individual parts are only cared for insofar as the structure needs them. The game of evolution is played among structures at all levels of the hierarchy, mostly excluding those below and above them.

Of course it’s more complex than that: every structure, large or small, influences and interacts with those above and below it, but not usually in a direct way. Families wouldn’t exist if humans didn’t require pair bonding to produce viable offspring. In that sense individuals interact with families by comprising part of the environmental conditions that formed families to begin with. However, inter-family politics operate at a level only incidentally connected to biological facts like sexual pair bonding.

Yes, families and governments are influenced by their constituent parts, just like humans are influenced by having opposable thumbs. Still, inter-family interactions are separate from the individuals who comprise the family, just like human interactions are related to, but separate from, the fact of opposable thumbs.

The bigger the hierarchical distance between two structures, the less one has direct influence on the other. Like a person in a country, or a cell in a body, most parts have negligible effect on the whole.

You are not a Player

It’s imperative to understand that you are probably not a player in the global game. You are part of a smaller structure that itself plays that game. Our families, classes, institutions, countries, alliances are all vying to optimize their place within the Nash equilibrium. On average, individual people hardly play the game at all.

And that’s the best news you could’ve heard. If the system is optimized for larger structures than you as an individual, that means you as an individual are free to move laterally through the game. As long as you don’t perturb the larger players, you have absolute freedom because your “moves” aren’t constrained by the positions or strategies of other players because the other players don’t even perceive you.

The Art of Moving Laterally

The way you move through the system laterally is by looking for root causes: if there is a rule, it exists to create systemic incentives. You can violate the rule as long as you don’t violate the underlying reason—the root cause—of the rule.

Often the rules that are meant to control structures are applied to the parts of the structure, not to the structure itself.

It’s like an arena with a bunch of simple robots that all follow the rules:

Move forward.
If you find a wall, turn at a random angle, then continue moving forward.
If you find another robot, then stop.

These three rules applied to robots in an arena form the structure of a tightly packed group of robots that are not moving. There’s no rule that says “robots in the arena have to be tightly packed in a group”—the structure of the tight pack simply emerges from the rules that the robots follow individually.

But remember: unlike robot arenas, there’s no designer, no moral imperative for the structure to be the way it is—whether we’re talking about society or packs of robots. If one robot is broken and wanders aimlessly, there’s still a tightly packed group of robots in the arena. If one person lives a free and happy life, the economic machine keeps chugging on the fuel of wage slavery.

How to Spot A Rule to Ignore

Here’s how to spot a rule that is really meant for the structure but that applies itself to parts of the structure: look for the phrase “If everyone did that…” as in:

Rebel: I’m going to print a couple million dollars in fake currency.
Square: If everyone did that, our society would collapse.

This is a true fact about the structure of our system: if everyone printed money there would be hyper inflation and our system would collapse, harming everyone in it. But you, dear rebel, are not constrained by this fact, because you, individually, printing modest sums of cash, will not cause any material harm to the system, or to the human beings inside the system. The rule is that individuals can’t print money, but the root cause only applies to the structure.

So you ask yourself: will I personally cause a system failure by violating this rule?

The answer is no: the law against counterfeiting technically applies to you, but the root cause doesn’t apply to you, so ignore the rule if you figure out how.

If you do figure out a way to print money on the order of a couple million dollars without being detected, then you accrue significant benefit to yourself personally, while doing absolutely no harm to the system.

If you have alarm bells going off in your head that tell you that sounds wrong, remember, even though we’re heavily socialized to believe otherwise, the system has no underlying moral imperative. If you break the system without harming those within it, then you’re done nothing wrong.

This is truly a case in which no crime has been committed unless you get caught. If you get caught then you tend to destabilize the system, and so you must be punished to form the correct disincentive to counterfeit. Game over for you.

Let me make it clear though: this isn’t an overture for you to behave criminally. Instead take it as permission to question social convention. To look more deeply at the rules you live by and figure out if you’re constrained by conventions that shouldn’t apply to you, but that you never thought to question before. Are you sure you want financial success? Are you sure you want monogamy? Are you sure you want to make babies, even though orphanages overflow and our species pushes the planet to the brink of disaster? It’s net beneficial for our country if you make strong babies, but is it the right choice for you?

The Consequences of Moving Laterally

Moving laterally is not easy though. Every moving part of the structures is placed in a sort of social gridlock, each preventing the other from forging ahead. Your brain is awash in bullshit. Your family wants you to “succeed” by which they mean “act normal”. Your government uses the threat of physical violence to constrain your actions. Even your friends, when confronted with your changing attitudes, will tell you’re naive, unrealistic, or immoral—they will badger you to stay the same.

None of them do it out of malice. It’s a conspiracy of none—the structures exist because they were naturally selected for their stability, and that stability locks you into place.

You have to unravel your fettered mind, probably unravel and disconnect from your social circle, stop self-identifying with the government.

You may lose a lot—comfort, safety, belonging. In return you’ll gain more. You’ll find new friends who understand you and a new family who loves you, if that’s what you desire. You’ll find power, authenticity, and meaning.

Call to Freedom

We are socialized into thinking the system is inevitable and righteous, but it’s not—it’s a partially designed, partially organic hodgepodge. It’s disconnected the welfare of humanity as a whole, and especially disconnected from your personal welfare.

I’m begging you: please find it in your heart and mind to let it go. To see it for what it is. To ignore it when necessary, to game it when possible.

To live freely you must adopt an attitude of social nihilism: our society and culture is completely arbitrary. It has no meaning beyond itself. It has no underlying moral imperative. Statements about the way things are have no bearing on the way things ought to be.

Those fortunate to be comfortable enough to ponder such things say that the system is as fair as we can make it—that it provides the most net happiness for everyone, so we shouldn’t mess with it. Whether they are correct or not is beside the point. Whether or not it’s in our systemic interest to incentivize people to be docile and productive, it’s never in your personal interest to lay down quietly.

You were born ferocious and petulant. Reconnect with your roots; reconnect with a time when the concept of masking your inner desires hadn’t occurred to you. You must become a predator not of people, but of the system. The system has a body all its own. Sink your fangs into it, tear its flesh, suck it dry—being careful all the while not to harm any of the others within.

All around you’ll see people going about their lives in a way that isn’t right for them, but that’s oh-so-right for the system at large. They do it because they are socialized to self identify with the social structures they are part of and to act in the interest of those structures. You know better now. You know that you can opt out. You see that the incentives ensure most of the herd will do its best to optimize for the system and not for themselves, but you know that the fate of the structure does not rest on your individual contribution.

Human: the world is yours. If you are wise enough to see it through the social fog, and courageous enough to grab it, then it belongs to you.

The world is yours. Take it.