I’ve been reading a lot of René Girard lately and along the way, I’ve seen a lot of parallels with another favorite writer: The Last Psychiatrist (TLP). My fascination with TLP goes back to 2011, when I discovered and quickly became obsessed with his writing on narcissism, media criticism, advertising, and psychology (and later made a movie that was heavily influence by his writing).
Connecting the dots in my mind has been delightful, and I wish they could get together and hash things out. Unfortunately, Girard is dead and The Last Psychiatrist is… well, last I heard he was drinking himself to death while writing a book about porn. I wish him well, wherever he may be.
There are many parallels between Girard and TLP, but I want to pull on one little thread that begins with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
TLP’s project is far-reaching and delightfully tangential, but at its core, it’s a wickedly incisive, earnest, and often hilarious exploration of narcissism:
Shame over guilt; rage over anger; masturbation over sex; envy over greed; your future over your past but her past over her future…
The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong; but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.
He’s a man in a glass box, unable to connect. He thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X…
But that attempt is always futile, not because you can’t trick the other person– you can, for an entire lifetime, it’s quite easy. But even then, the man in the box is still unsatisfied, still frustrated, because no amount of identity maintenance will break that glass box.
If the other person is also in a glass box, then you have a serious problem. If everyone is in their own glass box, well, then you have America.— The Last Psychiatrist: A Generational Pathology: Narcissism Is Not Grandiosity
But where does it come from? Where did it start?
Reading TLP, you get the sense that this epidemic of narcissism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Except, hold on, here he is talking about Dostoevsky:
Most people will give you the usual suspects, so let me add my personal favorite: Notes from The Underground. I know I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it’s a profound work of psychological insight.
While not exactly about depression, it’s fairly obvious he is depressed. But more importantly, the reason for his depression is an inability to connect with any other people. He sees them, he has remarkably precise observations about their character, but he completely misses/misinterprets their connections to him. He can only process reality in one direction, inwards: what it does to him, how it makes him feel, the impact of it on himself. Everyone else in the world is relevant only in the way they affect him.
Because of this perspective, he cannot help but be depressed; and, from my own experience, that narcissism is by far a more significant factor in today’s “clinical depression” than anything else.— from a comment on Recommend writing about depression – majordepressivedisorder | Ask MetaFilter
Notes from Underground was published in Russia in 1864 and it wasn’t science fiction and I don’t think Russians got American TV until 1989. The Boomers and American TV may have taken narcissism to dizzying new heights, but if it was going on in 1864 then you can’t pin it entirely on TV or advertising or going off the gold standard or thinkpieces in The Atlantic or mind-coddling or glyphosate or seed oils whatever is making us all sad and fat and angry these days.
Girard was also a fan of Dostoevsky and like TLP, he saw in his work a great illumination of his big idea: mimetic desire.
“Except for a few characters who entirely escape imitative desire, in Dostoevsky, there is no longer any love without jealousy, any friendship without envy, any attraction without repulsion. The characters insult each other, spit in each other’s faces, and minutes later they fall at the enemies feet. They objectively beg mercy. This fascination coupled with hatred is no different in principle from Proustian snobbism and Stendhalian vanity. The inevitable consequences of desire copied from another desire are envy, jealousy and impotent hatred. As one moves from Stendhal to Proust, and from Proust to Dostoevsky, the closer the mediator comes, the more bitter are the fruits of triangular desire.”– Deceit, Desire and the Novel (page 41)
Girard reads Notes from Underground and doesn’t see narcissism1, but a classic case of mimetic desire. The Underground Man is trapped in internal mediation, locked in mimetic rivalry with everyone he encounters. The result is a man consumed by envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. In other words, the classic narcissist.
(if you’re lost and want a good primer on Girardian thought, I recommend Secrets about People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard).
Because Girard is an anthropologist2, he’s well-positioned to sees that this phenomenon has roots that predate the 20th century. He wrote an essay called “Innovation and Repetition,” which is hard to excerpt but goes something like this: once upon a time in the West, before the intellectually wild and libertine 18th century, the term “innovation” was considered a bad word. Intellectuals and thinkers considered innovation a dangerous thing that could topple the social order.
The way to a good and virtuous life was through imitation — but not imitation of just anyone — you had to imitate great figures from the past, paragons of virtue from the domains of religion or philosophy.
But then, starting in the 18th century, thinkers started to get interested science and innovation and as we proceeded through the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of God started to die. Imitation became gauche and innovation was the hot new thing.
The narcissism of today is not some recent phenomenon, but the result of a centuries-long shift in Western thought and culture. We didn’t invent it, but we perfected it.
Imitation may be uncool, but it happens regardless. You’re going to have models. The only question is “who?” and if you’re not deliberate about it, well, this is where TLP really shines.
One of his great insights was that ads don’t sell a specific product, they teach you how to want — as in, the car commercial doesn’t tell you “a Lexus is great” but it does tell you “your car defines your sexual desirability” or “your car is how you communicate who you are.” You watch the BMW ad and think “that guy’s a douche, everyone knows driving a BMW won’t get you laid” and the trick has worked — by rejecting the specific message, you accept the premise. “I love nature, that’s why I’m a Subaru man.”
And into this narcissistic world where internal mediation runs rampant, advertising comes in like a genius con artist and sees the setup for the greatest con of all time. You can trick people into wanting what you want them to want and all they’ll ask for in exchange is for you to define their identity.
If you don’t understand this, then you’re an easy target for advertisers, ideological charlatans, and anyone who wants to plug into your mimetic API for their own ends. You’re walking around with the private keys to your identity exposed.
If that makes you depressed and bitter, well then, don’t worry, they have something they can sell you for that. And if you immediately blame capitalism, then I think you missed the point of section II.
So, what do you do, if you’re like Underground Man, moving through the world bitter and spiteful of everyone around you, filled with envy and rage?
TLP struggled to answer this question, and I think that was in part because he saw mimesis as wholly the province of narcissists:
The narcissist has identity– but it is one he chose, not one that evolved naturally. That means he thinks of himself as something– based on a model. He consciously identifies with someone– Tony Soprano, the guy from Coldplay, Jack Kerouac, or a combination of traits from people, etc. The psychopath has no model– he just exists. Since the narcissist’s identity is entirely made up, it requires other people for constant reaffirmation of his identity and of its value.— The Last Psychiatrist: Psychopathy, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Narcissism
The healthy individual doesn’t copy his identity, he allows it to evolve naturally. But what does it mean for your identity to evolve naturally? We can agree that the wholesale imitation of a TV character is a bad idea but is it possible to even exist without some level of imitation?
He never arrives at the Girardian concept of a higher, external mediator, but does get pretty close:
So what about the next generation, those under 25? If the problem was the unopposed influence of TV– not the TV, per se, but the lack of opposing influence– then the solution is some opposing influence.
I am nervous about recommending “the Classics” because it sounds contrived and pretentious, but anything that has withstood the test of time and is not something that was created to be consumed by current narcissist adults is as good a place to start as any.
Do the opposite of what the narcissists did. They wanted to know enough to fake it. They read just enough to use the book to build an identity, so they read about books, but not the actual books.— via The Last Psychiatrist: Can Narcissism Be Cured?
The unopposed influence of TV needs a counterweight — you need to go further into history, find something old to read — but he doesn’t quite arrive at the Girardian insight — why you need to go into the old books.
It’s not because they boomers didn’t read them, and it’s not because they’re Lindy (although that’s related), it’s because they’re above you, far away enough in time and space that there’s no risk of mimetic rivalry. Imitating the ancient Greeks or Romans, or Thomas Edison or Joan of Arc or basically anyone who isn’t someone in your actual life or on TV is better than imitating someone you know, a potential rival.3
If mimesis is inevitable, then who you choose to imitate is really important. To deny the choice, to let yourself go wherever the current takes you, means that you’ll inevitably imitate the people around you or whoever the dominant culture or whoever advertisers wants you to imitate.
Maybe you get lucky and have good role models, but maybe you don’t and you end up bitter, envious, and full of impotent rage. And that’s no way to live. At least that’s what my models say.
Choose wisely, wildman.
What does Girard think of narcissism? Well, he wrote an essay called “Narcissism: The Freudian Myth Demythified by Proust” and the astute reader will guess from the title that he’s not a huge fan of the concept. It’s hard to distill his opinion down to just one sentence, but — wait, never mind, he actually wrote this: “The whole theory of narcissism is one of the most questionable points in psychoanalysis” (from Mimesis & Theory). And there’s a funny bit where he basically says that the very idea of narcissism is an obstacle to “arrest our thinking at the point where Freud arrested his; it confirms our natural tendency, the tendency of all desire to consider ‘self-centeredness’ and ‘other-centeredness’ as separate poles that can become dominant in separate individuals.” In other words, the concept of narcissism prevents you from understanding the real truth and which diehard TLP readers will see the delicious irony here. If Girard’s favorite pastime was pointing out things that are actually mimetic desire, then TLP’s favorite pastime was pointing out things that are actually narcissistic defenses (against change, usually). For example: therapy, trying to understand yourself, addiction, projection, blaming others, rage, reading too much TLP, writing thinkpieces, hating on hipsters, etc. And maybe me pointing out that things are defenses against other things is my defense against… things. Or change. I don’t know. ↩
Yes, I know his formal training was not in anthropology. ↩
Look, obviously there are people from the past that are not good to imitate. The point isn’t that “everyone dead is a good role model”, the point is that “a dead person can’t become a rival.” You still have to choose good models. ↩
It’s been quite a year. I started the year pondering how Cats happened, and now, the longest eight months later, the question remains unresolved but somewhat less important. An apocalypse can be a disaster or it can be a prophetic revelation, and to this amateur observer, Cats was a disaster that revealed nothing while the pandemic is both disaster and revelation. It’s time to see what we can see, and maybe get there before the rest of the world shows up.
The pandemic, you may have noticed, has caused a seismic shift to remote work. People (with means and mobility) are leaving cities, rents are dropping in SF and NY, and there’s a housing boom in the ‘burbs and maybe everywhere that’s not a city.
In America, this has led to proclamations of the death of cities in general and New York and San Francisco in particular.
But proclaiming the death of cities in the middle of a pandemic is kind of like saying you’ll never drink again when you’re lying fetal on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. You’ll drink again, you know you will, and cities will come back.
A few years ago, a friend of a friend was leaving Chicago and on his way out he wrote a Facebook post about how he was tired of all the racism in Chicago and just couldn’t stand it anymore. I mean, yeah, it’s a racist place, but it’s been that way since forever. He went to grad school in another American city, I assume one without a racist history, but the point is that he was leaving anyway for personal reasons. A lot of the “I’m getting out!” content feels a bit like that. Yeah, sure, your ex was a bitch, we get it, but why did it take you seven years to see it?
Sometime soon, maybe in a year, maybe in five years, there will be a vaccine and people will forget about the pandemic. Half the country is already pretending it doesn’t exist and in five years, when it really doesn’t exist, the other half will forget that it existed (or are you betting on the memory of Americans?).
The really big thing is not that people are leaving cities, it’s what enables them to leave cities — the decoupling of cities and work for a huge number of people around the world.
There’s a massive group of people who just went from needing to live near work to having the freedom to live just about anywhere with good wifi.
Now, I’m just a filmmaker trying to avoid a 150-page first draft of a screenplay that needs rewriting and you probably shouldn’t listen to me, but I think it’s a worthy exercise to think about where people will go and what that will precipitate.
With the virus still floating around, some people are staying put and some are hiding out in the woods until things cool down and some are heading to the ‘burbs where they will spend the next twenty years smugly expounding on the virtues of lawns and the traffic, my God the traffic even though the traffic isn’t so bad now that all the commuters are gone.
But sometime soon, people will forget about the pandemic and a lot of people will move back to cities, and a lot of us city-lovers will move to new cities.
Because a life entirely mediated by Zoom is soulless and empty. Because many people will crave all the things that cities offer: great restaurants, bars, dating markets, live comedy, live music, art galleries, theater, cinema, excitement and energy, weirdos, running into friends, the ability to join a face-to-face community or scenius, and the feeling of discovering something new every day.
Cities will have a lot to offer, as they have for thousands of years, especially for young single people who just lost an entire year of youthful fun to the pandemic. And as the population of cities shift more to young, single, and ambitious people, more young, single, and ambitious people will be attracted. Network effects, or something.
College kids want to party, you may have seen on the news.
And if you’re young and breaking into an industry, you want to expose yourself to the upside of chance encounters and casual off-the-record conversations. You don’t “run into” people on Zoom. Ever tried to Tinder when back home in the ‘burbs visiting your parents?
Nothing propinks like propinquity. Most of the interesting stuff happens outside the official channels, not to mention the aesthetic reasons for preferring cities, or that some of us just prefer to be around other people.
As long as cities offer some level of serendipity and a lot of easy-to-access culture, they will be desirable places to live for a lot of people.
There’s a latent force, a pent-up energy, a coiled spring. And when the pandemic ends, people will exercise their newfound freedom to move and a lot of shit will go kinetic.
For the newly mobile, let’s call them the mobile middle class — not quite the leverage class, but people with high incomes that are not tied to their local economy — the desirability of a city will be increasingly tied to lifestyle factors.
Prior to the pandemic, I spent eight months living more or less nomadically. I kind of despise the word “digital nomad” but I can’t think of a better term, so here we are. I had a remote freelancing gig and moved around a lot, spending time in Mexico, Colombia, Barcelona, San Francisco, and New York.
Being a digital nomad (ugh) really shifts the calculus of where to live, especially for people without kids. In my experience, nomads tend to look for a few things:
- Good weather
- High-speed internet
- Affordable short-term housing
- Culture and “lifestyle” (so broad! can mean many different things to different people!)
Some people prefer warm beachy spots like Bali or the Canary Islands while some prefer places with lots of culture and things to do — places like Berlin, New York, Lisbon, Barcelona, Mexico City, Austin, Medellin, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.
Looking at the fastest-growing locations for digital nomads might provide a hint as to the kinds of places that will grow in popularity.
Up until now, this has all happened on a small scale. Remote jobs were relatively hard to come by.
Not anymore. The pandemic just created tens or even hundred of millions of new remote workers.
Are they all going to move? Will they all go abroad? Will they all choose nomadic lifestyles? No. Obviously not. But we’re going to see a massive shift in preferences — we’ve already seen the revealed preferences of mobile people with families, but a large percentage of the newly mobile will want to live in cities and that when they choose which city to live in, lifestyle and cultural factors will be more important than job opportunities.
This will lead to growth in cities that offer the things that nomads previously looked for — culture, weather, affordable cost of living, interesting people, culture, etc.
What happens when people start flooding into towns and cities whose growth was previously limited by the number of high-paying jobs?
Well, The Washington Post has an article about it. You should read it because it’s the future.
Let’s take an example of a Google engineer, currently living in San Francisco making $150,000 a year. They can buy a house in San Francisco for $2 million or they can move to Asheville, NC or Nashville, or Austin or Denver or Salt Lake City and get a lot more house and still have money left over (if they move quickly).
Or maybe they’re want to explore the world a bit. They might live in South America or Europe or Asia or Africa for a while.1
Same income (for now), more lifestyle or culture or whatever.
This is going to cause some serious tension. I read the WaPo article and didn’t see any mention of pitchforks, just angry people on Instagram, but it’s early.
Let’s take Asheville as an example. You might be thinking “wait, this has already been happening in Asheville for the past ten years” and yup, but now it’s going to happen harder and faster.
The local middle class, that is, people who have in-demand skills but are tied to the local economy — their economic opportunities won’t open up in the same way that the SF engineer’s lifestyle opportunities just did. It’s asymmetrical, or something.
If you’re a software engineer in Asheville, your job market just went from a 30-mile radius to anywhere in the U.S. (the world too, but software engineers don’t want to compete in the global market, more on that later). But if you’re a teacher, saving for a home for the past five years and just when you got that down payment together… a bunch of carpet-bagging remote workers come into the market and start bidding up housing values! And you don’t even like kombucha.
I saw hints of this when I was in Barcelona. The city is a magnificent place to live, which has attracted foreigners. The increased demand for housing, coupled with an increasing percentage of the housing stock devoted to Airbnbs (because it’s also a huge tourist destination), is forcing long-term rental prices up.
As rents rise, long-time residents find themselves priced out of the market. The tension is there. You hear it when you talk to native Catalans and you can see it in the graffiti.
Now, imagine what happens if just 10,000 newly remote Americans or Europeans — people making an annual salary of $75,000 to $150,000 — decide they want to live in a city where a median salary is around €40,000 per year.2
Just as scaling effects have dramatically shifted incomes for the leverage class, the same will happen for cities, but instead of the power law favoring the cities with the biggest economic engines, it will favor the cities (and towns and suburbs) with the best lifestyles.
Longtime residents will rebel. There will be anti-foreigner sentiment as a kind of global gentrification happens and people fight for the souls of their cities.
There’s a quote in the WaPo article and it may look like insipid politico-speak but I think it says everything you need to know about how this is going to play out:
“There is a tremendous opportunity, excitement and potential,” says Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, “but also great challenges if we’re not thoughtful, and the inequality and inequity continue to grow.”
Those are not sober words.
Pat Ryan, I don’t know a thing about him, except that he’s human and humans respond to incentives.
And he, along with every other mayor and county executive in the world just had the same thought: holy fuck we’re going to make a lot of money on this… if… we play our cards right. Remember when we had to give out all those tax breaks to lure corporations here? Remember how Amazon gleefully bent us over the table just to talk about locating a warehouse here? Fuck that noise, we’re going straight to the source.
Of course, there will be, uh, you know, great challenges if we’re not thoughtful about… I’m sorry — it’s hard to concentrate — there’s a giant hose of money that just fell from the sky — what was the question?
Follow the money, McNutty.
If we play our cards right. That clause is doing a lot of work, because there will be winners and losers here. Pat Ryan happens to be sitting at the head of some very desirable real estate, but not every civic leader is so lucky.
Coming soon: towns, cities, states, and any other polity with the power to tax will be fighting to attract high-income remote workers.
If this sounds familiar, then maybe you read about it in The Sovereign Individual or maybe you read this on Entrepreneur.com:
“Meanwhile, some destinations are making their best pitch to attract remote workers, and others will likely want to follow suit. States like Vermont, Maine and Oklahoma already had grant programs in place, offering cash to full-time remote workers that relocated somewhere within their borders. Beyond the U.S., countries like Estonia and Georgia in Eastern Europe, and Bermuda and Barbados in the Caribbean are greatly relaxing their worker visa requirements in an effort to lure digital nomads, largely to boost their economies suffering from a drop off in tourism.”— With Working from Home Here to Stay, Expect These 5 Things to Change
Cities that are slow to adjust will lose out.
Cities that are slow to adjust and have things like bad weather and poor governance working against them could face a vicious cycle — as high-income workers leave, the tax base shrinks and services decline, which pushes the local middle to the suburbs. Less disposable income flows into cultural endeavors, making it a less attractive place for artists and other cultural producers, which makes it less attractive for high-income people, and so on.
I see the death of some cities, just not the ones people are talking about right now.
I’m not a political scientist, I’m just a filmmaker and you really shouldn’t listen to me, but my gut is telling me that as states compete for residents, we may apocalypse, I mean uncover, some unsavory truths about democracy. That is to say, that people don’t really care about it that much. Sure, they care about a lot of the things that usually come with democracy, but the actual voting, well it’s hard when the choices suck and for some reason I can never find the checkbox for “end the drug war and also the other wars.”
As people figure out that it’s easier to vote with their feet than it is to change their local political economy, they’ll go where the going is good.
Whatever happens, if it happens, will happen fast.
One salient feature of the pandemic is that it force a lot of complacent people to make drastic and swift changes in their lives. If you think of change as a kind of muscle that can be flexed, then I think we have a lot of people who primed to respond quickly to incentives. The more you make big life-altering decisions, the easier it is to make more of them. The world is getting less inertia-y, or something.
And one salient feature of rapid social and economic change is conflict.
As progressives leave expensive cities in search of better lifestyles in towns and cities around the U.S. (and the world), they’ll bring their progressive politics, higher real estate prices, and kombucha.
Did you read the article? It’s already happening and I don’t know anything about book publishing but I wouldn’t be surprised if the writer, Karen Heller, already has a book deal for an explainer on the 2028 election.
Ironically, the great reshuffling could be a moderating political force in the U.S. If progressives migrate to red states (who’s got the warm weather and low taxes?), then red states will turn bluer and the blue states they leave behind will redden. Theoretically, this could place more states into purple territory, forcing senatorial and presidential candidates to play more to moderate median voters and less to the partisans.
Or maybe it will lead to violence! A lot of things in America lead to violence!
If you’re a tech worker living in the U.S., you might be reading this thinking “hey, this all sounds pretty good for me.”
Tranquilo amigo, because companies will pretty quickly figure out (if they haven’t already) that if all their employees are remote, it doesn’t exactly make sense to only hire American citizens. Why hire an American engineer who expects to make $130,000/year when you can hire one in Warsaw or Kigali who expects half or a third of that?
High-skilled English-speaking people around the world will have access to the global labor market and just as outsourcing in the 90s led to rising incomes for millions of poor around the world (and the resultant resentment and its attendant political strife of left-behind U.S. factory workers), we’ll see millions of people around the world lifted from their previously-tethered-to-the-local-economy jobs to global remote jobs.
I remember hearing somewhere that whenever large groups of people are lowered in status, there is strife.
Of course, the biggest losers from all of this will be the precarious class, people without high incomes or the ability to move. Luckily, American elites, will rise to the challenge of the day and, realizing how fucked up things are, will
finally figure out how to create a society with work, opportunity, and dignity for all occasionally use the precarious class as a pawn in a Girardian competition for status, if they’re not too busy with that goddamn money hose that just fell from the sky.
A massive potential energy is about to go kinetic.
It will happen fast.
Things could get ugly.
I hope they don’t.
Average is over, as Tyler Cowen says. Stay frosty.
Time zones will cause friction in the short-term, but as remote work evolves, some companies will require you to live +/- a few hours of a single timezone and others will compete for workers by allowing truly global remote work, basing teams around time zones. ↩
These are loose numbers based on informal conversations I had over the course of two months, but I’m in the ballpark. ↩
Since I left Chicago in August, I’ve been living a somewhat nomadic life. I don’t have any long-term commitments and I have a remote job that I can do from anywhere with an internet connection.
And I love it. I love freedom. It feels amazing.
But there are pangs of something that I feel, a feeling I can’t quite describe, a feeling of wanting to be constrained. And I’ve been trying to wrestle with why I feel this way, of why despite enjoying traveling so much, I have an urge to restrict my freedom.
Here’s what I think: freedom induces anxiety because it raises choices and choices have existential implications. So when confronted with freedom, we (subconsciously) look for ways to eliminate it.
What’s so great about a mortgage?
There are the obvious financial reasons and the ability to control your property. But I think there’s another psychological reason: a mortgage gives you an arbitrary goal, a way or ordering your life and making decisions.
The benefit of the mortgage is its long duration and high cost, which serve as both an organizing principle for life and a defense against the anxiety of freedom.
Want to take a new job? Well, sure, if I can still pay the mortgage.
Want to move? You can’t because you have this mortgage.
Of course people can sell their houses and move. The point isn’t that a mortgage ties you permanently to a place or situation, but that it alleviates the daily questioning of where you live.
It raises the threshold for considering a move — when you’re a nomad, you can move on any whim but when you have a mortgage, the threshold is much higher — you can move because you get a new job offer or to be closer to family or whatever, but you’re not just going to book a cheap fare to Buenos Aires and live there for a few months because you feel like it.
The defense against anxiety is key I think — life is much easier if you don’t question your purpose, if you have a shorthand rubric for every decision. Having children probably works in this way too, and I don’t mean to say that any of this is negative — people with children should probably organize their lives around the health and wellbeing of their children and if I have children I will almost certainly not be flying around the world on a whim.
When I lived in Chicago and I was studying/practicing comedy, I had an organizing goal for my life: to get better at comedy, to get cast in shows, to be successful.
When I switched from theater to film, there was a similar organizing goal: to make films.
Insomuch as Chicago was the best place for me to do those things or provided the best opportunity to do those things, it was easy to stay in Chicago, even when I felt like leaving or the winters were long and freezing, or when I was just feeling wanderlust. Sure, I was unhappy at times (who isn’t?), but I had a reason to stay — to move on a whim would take me farther from my goals.
And whatever suffering I felt was easier to bear, knowing that it was in service of a longer-term goal. The structure was secure as long as I didn’t question the organizing goal for being in Chicago (studying comedy).
Once I quit performing, I went through a crisis where I had to question everything (and mourn the loss of a part of me) before settling on a new goal: making movies, which brought an organizing structure back to my life.
During the transition, I toyed with the idea of moving but it was clear that the network I had built in Chicago, combined with cheap rents, made it much easier to make movies in Chicago.
Once I made a feature film, the calculus changed. I no longer had an organizing reason for staying in Chicago. Yes, I still want to make feature films and yes, it’s still easier to do that in Chicago than it is in New York or wherever (because I have the local knowledge and contacts in Chicago and because rent is so damn cheap), but because I want to move up a budget level, the calculus is different.
The model of “work two years and save, then make an ultra-low-budget film” is not what I want anymore. Once I decided that the majority of the budget for my next project will come from investors, there’s no need to keep rent ultra-low to save as much as possible and high-rent cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are now viable places to live.
It makes sense that we would have defenses against constantly questioning our life situation. I mean, it’s probably not great to wake up every day of your life asking yourself the question “is this where I should live? is this the right career for me? is this my best life?”.
If you constantly question everything and never commit to anything, you’ll end up living in a kind of high-anxiety state of paralysis.
Completing meaningful, long-term projects like raising children or starting a company or creating a political movement or changing the culture — these all require a lot of commitment and a lot of saying no.
On the other hand, if you never question anything and just copy whatever your friends are doing, you’re liable to get stuck in a life that you don’t want.
So I think it’s safe to say that there’s an optimal mix of questioning vs. living, of commitment (and its attendant constraints) and reorganizing.
The trick I think, is to choose constraints and commitments consciously1, with regular checkpoints or a regular framework for question things and considering a reorganization of life.
For me, it seems to come about every ten years, but I wonder if I should be more deliberate in how I approach this whole question, by setting up an arbitrary time for questioning, like the last week of the year.
Yes, I recognize that this is a massive luxury for privileged people ↩
From Marginal Revolution:
Setbacks are an integral part of a scientific career, yet little is known about whether an early-career setback may augment or hamper an individual’s future career impact. Here we examine junior scientists applying for U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants. By focusing on grant proposals that fell just below and just above the funding threshold, we compare “near-miss” with “near-win” individuals to examine longer-term career outcomes. Our analyses reveal that an early-career near miss has powerful, opposing effects. On one hand, it significantly increases attrition, with one near miss predicting more than a 10% chance of disappearing permanently from the NIH system. Yet, despite an early setback, individuals with near misses systematically outperformed those with near wins in the longer run, as their publications in the next ten years garnered substantially higher impact. We further find that this performance advantage seems to go beyond a screening mechanism, whereby a more selected fraction of near-miss applicants remained than the near winners, suggesting that early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere. Overall, the findings are consistent with the concept that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Whereas science is often viewed as a setting where early success begets future success, our findings unveil an intimate yet previously unknown relationship where early-career setback can become a marker for future achievement, which may have broad implications for identifying, training and nurturing junior scientists whose career will have lasting impact.https://arxiv.org/abs/1903.06958
I think this goes for the arts as well. Early setbacks drive some to give up and others to work harder or look inward or improve. I’ve seen early successes be quite damaging, especially when the success is undeserved.
But how do you know whether you’ve had a near miss or a complete, not-even-close miss?
From Peak California:
For a city to have a thriving arts scene, you need some combination of:
1. Families or nightlife, both of which produce demand for reasonably educated workers who work non-traditional or variable-schedule jobs, either as babysitters or bartenders.
2. Cheap neighborhoods that aren’t unsafe. My current neighborhood, Williamsburg, fit this role ten years ago.
3. Upside, either in the form of selling out or marrying someone with a boring but lucrative job.
From somewhere over the North Atlantic, I’m on my way home to Chicago after a month in Berlin.
I took the trip in part for family reasons but I extended it to get a better feel for the city, but I was writing, editing, and working throughout. I stayed there for just over a month (leaving for a long weekend in Spain in the middle) in a one-bedroom AirBnB apartment in Graefekiez, a gentrifying neighborhood in Kreuzberg. These thoughts are gleaned from many conversations with people here, Germans and non-Germans, as I consider moving to a new city or staying in Chicago.
I arrived on December 18 and quickly remembered how cities change drastically during the holiday time from Christmas to New Year’s Day. I usually don’t like the way the rhythm of cities slows down during holiday times, but I felt it double being in a new city. Things changed drastically once January hit and I felt a lot more life in the city, and had a much easier time meeting people.
I mostly avoided touristy things, except for two walking tours of Kreuzberg, including a tour of street art, something Kreuzberg is well known for.
When viewed from the street, much of the city is ugly to me. In Kreuzberg, almost every building surface within reach of spray paint is covered in graffiti.
There’s more trash on streets and the energy often feels messy — during our tour, a man stopped to pee on a tree about 15 feet from us, in the middle of the afternoon. I saw many other men pissing on the street during the month, including on a building in the middle of Alexanderplatz on New Year’s Eve, and none seem concerned that the police would give them a citation (or that everyone was shooting off fireworks, mostly into the air).
I love the street art.
This last one is one of my favorites, the Berlin wall turning into a wall of Euros. Anti-capitalist slogans are everywhere in the city. There also a lot of griping about gentrification and rising rents (which are still very cheap for a major city) and a feeling that the “cool Berlin” is gone or quickly fading. I hear this just about everywhere I go, whether in Berlin or the U.S. — it’s gentrifying, rents are going up, this place used to be cool 5/10/15/25 years ago.
Still, grassroots movements to keep the city unique have had some success. Google wanted to build a large office here and decided to back down after protests. “Fuck Google” stickers and graffiti can be seen around town.
The bigger art pieces are commissioned or done with permission. Some of the graffiti, like these ornate tags by the Berlin Kidz are also beautiful, at least to me.
That spells “paradox”.
While much of the exterior in the city is ugly, the interior spaces are often beautiful and unique. Stores, cafes, and apartments often have colorful interiors with ornate flowers painted on the walls, impeccable lighting, and many plants. It’s the opposite of Chicago, where the architecture is consistently beautiful but the interior of everyone’s apartment looks the same.
I wonder if Berliners feel that when they come inside, they want to come into warm, welcoming, cozy spaces, oases from the ugly exterior world.
There’s a similar phenomenon with the people too, who are generally attractive but dress in unflattering or, well, aesthetically unconventional ways. I’m not sure if it’s just the current fashion or what.
All of this amounts to a massive amount of texture. The city feels lived in, real, and human in a way that the grid of Chicago often feels dehumanizing and alienating to me.
Fewer than 50% of the residents are from Berlin. There are many many immigrants, expats, and refugees (notably Turks, Syrians, and Spaniards). And the city has also attracted droves of young professionals, artists, designers, coders, and entrepreneurs from all over the world.
This creates a feeling of constant energy and excitement. It feels like people really want to be here. On the other hand, I got the feeling from talking to people that it’s a bit of a transitional city, a waypoint on the way to somewhere else for many people. Several people told me it was hard to maintain friendships for more than a year because people come and then move on. Sometimes people come and then change completely as they discover some new way to live or new thing they’re into and join a different milieu or social group. That’s what makes it exciting – people can come and be free to find themselves, but it can also make it difficult.
The thing that I wonder though is — how much is substance and how much is hype? How much is just cool vs. impactful art? I have no way to answer these questions.
The city is incredibly international. There are people here from all over the world. It’s striking how uninternational Chicago feels in comparison. If you speak more than one language, then it’s common to have a little dance at the beginning of every conversation where you try to figure out which language is Pareto optimal for the conversation.
It was common for me to start with German (of which I know very little), have the other person switch to decent English, and then after a few minutes I would realize that they were from Spain or Colombia and we would switch to Spanish.
There are many Spaniards and Latin Americans there and Spanish is a pretty useful language to have in the city, although English is widespread. Almost everywhere you go, someone speaks at least some broken English. And some locals are upset because they have gone to restaurants or cafes where none of the staff spoke German. Many of the expats never bother to learn any German.
Now, some sentences about the fucking weather.
I’ve been to Berlin in the summer, when it was sunny and warm (but not hot) and it’s similar to Chicago — everyone is happier, everyone is outside, the sun is up until late, everything feels more beautiful, and there is much merriment had by all. In Berlin, you can drink in public and you’re either unemployed or have six weeks of vacation a year and so obviously you can enjoy the summer even more, drinking by the river with your eight friends, each from a different country.
Berlin in the winter is the opposite of that. It’s extremely gray. Like no sun for weeks at a time. My brother (who has lived there for seven years) tells me that a few years ago ago they had a winter with only 40 hours of sunlight the entire winter. I didn’t see pure unbroken sunlight for more than a five-minute stretch until… three days ago, or after being there for almost a month.1 The sun rises late (around 8am) and sets early (around 4pm).
I think it’s hard to underestimate the impact of living without sunlight for so long. Chicago winters are also depressing to me, mainly because they don’t end until April or May and also because they are also very gray. But Berlin felt depressing in a way that Chicago doesn’t.
My theory is that the Chicago winter is so extremely cold and harsh and the wind so terribly biting that it all creates a sometimes dire sense of hardship and suffering, which on the one hand is about as enjoyable as any other hardship and suffering but on the other hand has the pleasant side effect of creating a feeling of camaraderie with your fellow Chicagoans because we’re all in this together and goddammit we might not have much to live for but we will make it to see the summer, so help me God.2
Berlin’s weather felt less like a desperate struggle against mother nature and more like “well, this is just how things are, sorry, maybe try some Lexapro?”
I don’t know if it’s the city or the weather or the fact that the sun doesn’t rise until 8am, but my schedule shifted. I’ve been waking up at about 8am like clockwork for the past year and all of a sudden I found myself sleeping until 9am or 10am without any problem and naturally falling asleep around 1am or 2am. On a few nights, I went out to a bar or a party only to realize that it was 4:30am or 6:00am. There’s no way I’m just accidentally staying out until 6am in Chicago.
Film and Work
I wanted to meet up with more filmmakers but the weird time of year conspired against me.
I did get to one film event this week and met some interesting filmmakers. There was a pitch session where people could talk about their project and try to enlist collaborators. My sense was that most indie projects here are zero budget. I’m not sure if that’s better or not than Chicago – in Chicago, most indie projects have some funding, although never a lot of funding. Probably some projects would be better off going zero budget but it’s also nice that people get a little bit of money.
Another thing I noticed was that most of the people pitching were looking for writers to collaborate with. In Chicago, it feels like everyone is a writer. I don’t know any directors in Chicago that don’t also write their own material. Almost every comedian/improviser I know is also a writer or has written their own material at some point. I don’t know if everyone writing for themself is optimal, and I don’t want to draw conclusions from just meeting a handful of filmmakers in Berlin.
My hunch is that while Berlin may be more creative or inspiring than Chicago, it’s also harder to ship your work because there are so many shiny fun things going on, so many interesting people to meet, etc.
Berlin felt like it was telling me to not miss out, to come out and play and be weird and stay out late and party and meet people. During the winter in Chicago, I feel like the city is telling me to stay home, edit and write and watch Netflix and occasionally go to a bar with my friends to complain about the weather.
So while I think it would be more creatively stimulating to live there, I also think it would require more discipline to work and write.
There’s something about Berlin that truly feels free, like I actually felt more free there. I can’t quite describe it, it’s something cultural, something in the air.
And I’m not exactly oppressed in Chicago. I can’t really put my finger on it, but you just get the sense that anything goes — you can be anyone you want in Berlin and people won’t judge you (as long as you’re not judgmental).
Then there are things like the fact that you can drink in public. And urinate in public, if that’s your thing. And there’s the drug dealers at the Gorlitzer Park U-Bahn station (I never bought from them, but it’s nice to know you can buy drugs if you want them).
Smoking is still allowed in many bars, and regulations seem easy to skirt or laws are ignored or not enforced. And smoking is much more common.
Three days before New Year’s eve, tons of pop-up fireworks stores open up and people buy massive amounts of fireworks. The entire city is lit up by nonstop fireworks for hours after midnight on New Year’s Eve. It can’t be safe… I had fireworks exploding near me multiple times as I walked around or drank a beer on the sidewalk. It’s insane how many people were shooting off fireworks, including children.
Even the dogs are free — most dogs are walking around with their owners, unleashed.
And it almost always felt civil. I never felt in danger. Many of the smaller streets are dark at night but crime is much lower than in a major U.S. city.
And while raving drunks are tolerated on the train platforms, people will publicly yell at and scold people who are having ‘adult’ conversations or talking crudely in the presence of children.
Nobody asked me about Trump. When I traveled to Europe in the Bush years, everyone made comments about Bush.
I talked to a Russian who had no idea about any sort of Russian interference with U.S. elections. I told her it was a huge debate in the U.S. and she thought the very idea was preposterous. So, it seems that one of us is being lied to.
One of my favorite things was drinking tea, which was served with freshly-sliced ginger or mint leaves.
It’s feels safe in a way that a U.S. city never feels.
Reading Jane Jacobs has helped me understand why I much prefer living on mixed-use streets and why these streets feel better to walk on and live on.
There aren’t so many, uh, basic people.
It’s probably one of the best deals for geo-arbitrage for someone that wants a major international city. Cost of living is rising but still much lower than London, Paris, NY, SF, Chicago, LA.
Anti-racist and anti-sexist graffiti and signage are all over the place. The city is aggressively intolerant of intolerance.
Last week I finished a freelance gig that started in mid-July. It was an intense gig with long hours and many working weekends. On the weekends where I didn’t have to work, I was on call.
It was tough and stressful and often miserable. There were good times too and I met good people there.
I’ve been thinking in the last few days how I got through it. Because, honestly, without going into details, it was pretty miserable. And it meant not having a Chicago summer.1
Here are some of the reasons I didn’t quit:
- It’s only 3.5 months, anyone get through something like that.
- You made a commitment, keeping your word is important.
- The money is really good.
- I need the money.
- I don’t want to let the team down.
- I’m learning a lot.
- I’m working for an important cause; it’s important that I do my part.
Those are all good reasons, right?
What’s interesting is that depending on who I’m talking to, I might offer a different reason for why I did it. We tailor the stories we tell, depending on the audience, and I think for two reasons: one is to make the story more interesting and two is to make ourselves sound better.
The story you tell yourself about why you are doing it, that’s what gets you through.
And all of those stories worked for me at one point or another during the experience. But the one that persisted, the one that really kept me going was about the freedom. I’m sacrificing a lot of freedom right now for a lot more freedom down the road.
And sitting here on a Friday morning with nowhere to be and nothing to do, I have to say that I made the right choice. That sweet sweet taste of freedom, the freedom to work on whatever I want. I have about three to six months of runway before I have to take another job (assuming I don’t pick up any new freelance work) and that means I’m free to write every morning, for hours at a time.
I could jump on the train and fly to another city right now if I felt like it. I’m not going to, but I like the feeling.
I spent June directing a feature film, then I went to Scotland for a week in July and then started the job when I got back ↩
I’m reading through Pmarca’s guide to career planning on this lazy Sunday back home. Excellent throughout and way too much to quote, but some bits that ring especially clear:
The second rule of career planning: Instead of planning your career, focus on developing skills and pursuing opportunities.
I’ll talk a lot about skills development in the next post. But for the rest of this post, I’m going to focus in on the nature of opportunities.
Opportunities are key. I would argue that opportunities fall loosely into two buckets: those that present themselves to you, and those that you go out and create. Both will be hugely important to your career.
Opportunities that present themselves to you are the consequence — at least partially — of being in the right place at the right time. They tend to present themselves when you’re not expecting it — and often when you are engaged in other activities that would seem to preclude you from pursuing them. And they come and go quickly — if you don’t jump all over an opportunity, someone else generally will and it will vanish.
I believe a huge part of what people would like to refer to as “career planning” is being continuously alert to opportunities that present themselves to you spontaneously, when you happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found.
Colin Powell says, “You know you’re a good leader when people follow you, if only out of curiosity.”
From the Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity:
Let’s start with a bang: don’t keep a schedule.
He’s crazy, you say!
I’m totally serious. If you pull it off — and in many structured jobs, you simply can’t — this simple tip alone can make a huge difference in productivity.
By not keeping a schedule, I mean: refuse to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day.
As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.
Want to spend all day writing a research report? Do it!
Want to spend all day coding? Do it!
Want to spend all day at the cafe down the street reading a book on personal productivity? Do it!
When someone emails or calls to say, “Let’s meet on Tuesday at 3”, the appropriate response is: “I’m not keeping a schedule for 2007, so I can’t commit to that, but give me a call on Tuesday at 2:45 and if I’m available, I’ll meet with you.”
Or, if it’s important, say, “You know what, let’s meet right now.”
Clearly this only works if you can get away with it. If you have a structured job, a structured job environment, or you’re a CEO, it will be hard to pull off.
But if you can do it, it’s really liberating, and will lead to far higher productivity than almost any other tactic you can try.
As of last week, I’m self-employed and doing a version of this, along with some strategies I’ve picked up from Deep Work. I love it. My dream isn’t to retire and live on a beach; it’s to have the freedom to work on what I want, when I want.