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1. The Most Important Trait in the 21st Century – A few days ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about the many people we knew in our lives who seemed to be stagnant—i.e., not changing, not progressing, not accomplishing their goals—and the many people we knew who were not stagnant—i.e., moving up in the world, making things happen, reinventing themselves and their lives.
We asked each other: what was the difference between these two groups of people?
One answer continued to pop up for me: intense curiosity. The defining trait of progressing in the 21st century appears to be a driving curiosity about anything and everything.
The 20th century did not reward curiosity. The traditional structures of schools, corporations, and the church didn’t just deter open questioning and experimentation—they often feared it. Instead, they usually rewarded emulation. Any sort of innovation or experimentation was limited to a few people at the very top of the pyramid. Everyone else was expected to be a good worker bee.
But the internet has inverted this. Today, it seems that it’s the ones who fail to experiment, innovate, or challenge preconceived notions who get left behind.
Because in the 21st century, any decision-making that is sufficiently repeatable or predictable will eventually get automated or outsourced.
Peter Reinhardt called this phenomenon “living below the API.” An API is how software communicates with other software or with people. An Uber driver works “below the API” because his decisions at work are determined by software, not by himself. Journalists arguably live somewhat below the API because much of what they report on is driven by web traffic data and social media virality.
Basically, the more algorithms and software determine your day-to-day decisions, the more you live below the API.
What’s worse is that the API is always rising, consuming more human endeavors as it goes. As technology progresses, so does its ability to micromanage every aspect of our lives for maximal efficiency. This efficiency benefits society as a whole yet punishes those who fall under it with stagnant careers, repetitive entertainment, and soul-destroying jobs.
Once under the API, our opportunities for growth and advancement shrivel up—once robbed of the ability to make bold decisions, any chance to stand out or get ahead is likely gone.
Similarly, once under the API, your interests and worldview will become cemented, as algorithms feed you information they know you agree with and entertainment they know you will enjoy. People who live under the API feel as though they are this wonderful, unique, hard-working individual, but the truth of the matter is that they are simply living out what the algorithms have already determined for them.
The only way to stay above the API is to foster an intense curiosity, to take professional and personal risks, to habitually challenge preconceived notions, to lean into uncertainty and unpopular opinions, to challenge yourself with information you don’t agree with, with entertainment that doesn’t come naturally to you.
In short, staying above the API requires a certain level of discomfort—and I don’t simply mean the discomfort of working more hours or reading more books—I mean the discomfort in the kind of hours and the kind of books. It’s not a question of effort but intent. You should feel a little bit contrarian. You should feel a little bit wrong. You should feel a little bit foolish. That’s the only way to know that you’re right. The only way to be “on” is to feel a little bit “off.” The only way to stay ahead of the curve is to ditch the curve.
2. Is Meditation Still Good for You? – Last week, I linked to an article that discussed new research suggesting that meditation can have negative effects. It also recounted a story of a young woman who had a psychotic break on a meditation retreat and committed suicide.
I can’t remember the last time a newsletter item generated so much interesting discussion from readers. I’m blown away by how many of you have long histories and expertise with meditation—many with multiple decades’ worth.
The emails themselves were all over the map. Some said that they felt the woman in the article’s psychiatric problems were being falsely attributed to meditation. Some suggested that she was instructed poorly or did too much too soon. Some claimed that there is no research presented, just stories (they clearly didn’t read to the end).
But other experienced meditators said that they had actually seen a number of people have psychotic breaks over the years and were happy that someone was finally talking about it publicly. A couple of people wrote in saying that they themselves had experienced psychotic episodes while meditating and still didn’t know what to make of it.
I think this is a perfect example of the virtue of being able to be agnostic about a subject—something I harp on in this newsletter often (not to mention something that should come naturally to experienced meditators).
In terms of psychological research, there are reams of studies pointing to the positive effects of meditation. But there’s also some research that points to negative effects. It’s important to keep in mind that both of these things can be true at the same time. Running is healthy for most people in most situations, but there are also some situations where an extreme amount of running can be unhealthy. Perhaps meditation is the same. We’ve only been studying this stuff for a couple of decades, not nearly long enough to get a clear idea of what’s going on or how it affects people.
Not to mention, there’s still a lot of debate over what constitutes psychosis or a mental breakdown. Mental health is a field notorious for its arbitrary definitions. Meanwhile, meditation comes from thousands of years of religious tradition with all sorts of names and definitions for various psychological effects. Who is to say that a trans-egoic awakening is different from a psychotic break? It’s hard to know if it’s making our minds more effective or if we simply feel more effective. Who the fuck knows?
So maybe, as the Buddha would say, let’s just be comfortable in that not-knowing.
3. Is Shorter Better? – Finally, a number of people commented that they enjoyed the shorter format last week. That email was about half the length of my usual missives and some said that they prefer being able to get through the ideas quickly, especially on a Monday morning.
This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. I usually try to keep the emails to around 1,000 words (roughly four pages in a book). But sometimes I go way over. I often worry that the length puts some people off—not to mention, that time spent writing extra-long emails could easily be put into writing articles or the next book.
So, I figured I’d just ask you all directly. Would you prefer shorter emails with links to deep dives? Or would you prefer longer emails that are the deep dives themselves? Inquiring minds must know…
Until next week,