Peter Doolittle: How your “working memory” makes sense of the world
"Life comes at us very quickly, and what we need to do is take that amorphous flow of experience and somehow extract meaning from it." In this funny, enlightening talk, educational psychologist Peter Doolittle details the importance — and limitations — of your "working memory," that part of the brain that allows us to make sense of what’s happening right now.
Peter Doolittle is striving to understand the processes of human learning. Full bio »
In the 1999 sci-fi film classic The Matrix, the protagonist, Neo, is stunned to see people defying the laws of physics, running up walls and vanishing suddenly. These superhuman violations of the rules of the universe are possible because, unbeknownst to him, Neo’s consciousness is embedded in the Matrix, a virtual-reality simulation created by sentient machines.
The action really begins when Neo is given a fateful choice: Take the blue pill and return to his oblivious, virtual existence, or take the red pill to learn the truth about the Matrix and find out “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Physicists can now offer us the same choice, the ability to test whether we live in our own virtual Matrix, by studying radiation from space. As fanciful as it sounds, some philosophers have long argued that we’re actually more likely to be artificial intelligences trapped in a fake universe than we are organic minds in the “real” one.
But if that were true, the very laws of physics that allow us to devise such reality-checking technology may have little to do with the fundamental rules that govern the meta-universe inhabited by our simulators. To us, these programmers would be gods, able to twist reality on a whim.
So should we say yes to the offer to take the red pill and learn the truth — or are the implications too disturbing?
Worlds in Our Grasp
The first serious attempt to find the truth about our universe came in 2001, when an effort to calculate the resources needed for a universe-size simulation made the prospect seem impossible.
Seth Lloyd, a quantum-mechanical engineer at MIT, estimated the number of “computer operations” our universe has performed since the Big Bang — basically, every event that has ever happened. To repeat them, and generate a perfect facsimile of reality down to the last atom, would take more energy than the universe has.
“The computer would have to be bigger than the universe, and time would tick more slowly in the program than in reality,” says Lloyd. “So why even bother building it?”
But others soon realized that making an imperfect copy of the universe that’s just good enough to fool its inhabitants would take far less computational power. In such a makeshift cosmos, the fine details of the microscopic world and the farthest stars might only be filled in by the programmers on the rare occasions that people study them with scientific equipment. As soon as no one was looking, they’d simply vanish.
In theory, we’d never detect these disappearing features, however, because each time the simulators noticed we were observing them again, they’d sketch them back in.
That realization makes creating virtual universes eerily possible, even for us. Today’s supercomputers already crudely model the early universe, simulating how infant galaxies grew and changed. Given the rapid technological advances we’ve witnessed over past decades — your cell phone has more processing power than NASA’s computers had during the moon landings — it’s not a huge leap to imagine that such simulations will eventually encompass intelligent life.
“We may be able to fit humans into our simulation boxes within a century,” says Silas Beane, a nuclear physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Beane develops simulations that re-create how elementary protons and neutrons joined together to form ever larger atoms in our young universe.
Legislation and social mores could soon be all that keeps us from creating a universe of artificial, but still feeling, humans — but our tech-savvy descendants may find the power to play God too tempting to resist.
If cosmic rays don’t have random origins, it could be a sign that the universe is a simulation. National Science Foundation/J. Yang
They could create a plethora of pet universes, vastly outnumbering the real cosmos. This thought led philosopher Nick Bostrom at the University of Oxford to conclude in 2003 that it makes more sense to bet that we’re delusional silicon-based artificial intelligences in one of these many forgeries, rather than carbon-based organisms in the genuine universe. Since there seemed no way to tell the difference between the two possibilities, however, bookmakers did not have to lose sleep working out the precise odds.
Learning the Truth
That changed in 2007 when John D. Barrow, professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, suggested that an imperfect simulation of reality would contain detectable glitches. Just like your computer, the universe’s operating system would need updates to keep working.
As the simulation degrades, Barrow suggested, we might see aspects of nature that are supposed to be static — such as the speed of light or the fine-structure constant that describes the strength of the electromagnetic force — inexplicably drift from their “constant” values.
Last year, Beane and colleagues suggested a more concrete test of the simulation hypothesis. Most physicists assume that space is smooth and extends out infinitely. But physicists modeling the early universe cannot easily re-create a perfectly smooth background to house their atoms, stars and galaxies. Instead, they build up their simulated space from a lattice, or grid, just as television images are made up from multiple pixels.
The team calculated that the motion of particles within their simulation, and thus their energy, is related to the distance between the points of the lattice: the smaller the grid size, the higher the energy particles can have. That means that if our universe is a simulation, we’ll observe a maximum energy amount for the fastest particles. And as it happens, astronomers have noticed that cosmic rays, high-speed particles that originate in far-flung galaxies, always arrive at Earth with a specific maximum energy of about 1020 electron volts.
The simulation’s lattice has another observable effect that astronomers could pick up. If space is continuous, then there is no underlying grid that guides the direction of cosmic rays — they should come in from every direction equally. If we live in a simulation based on a lattice, however, the team has calculated that we wouldn’t see this even distribution. If physicists do see an uneven distribution, it would be a tough result to explain if the cosmos were real.
Astronomers need much more cosmic ray data to answer this one way or another. For Beane, either outcome would be fine. “Learning we live in a simulation would make no more difference to my life than believing that the universe was seeded at the Big Bang,” he says. But that’s because Beane imagines the simulators as driven purely to understand the cosmos, with no desire to interfere with their simulations.
Unfortunately, our almighty simulators may instead have programmed us into a universe-size reality show — and are capable of manipulating the rules of the game, purely for their entertainment. In that case, maybe our best strategy is to lead lives that amuse our audience, in the hope that our simulator-gods will resurrect us in the afterlife of next-generation simulations.
The weird consequences would not end there. Our simulators may be simulations themselves — just one rabbit hole within a linked series, each with different fundamental physical laws. “If we’re indeed a simulation, then that would be a logical possibility, that what we’re measuring aren’t really the laws of nature, they’re some sort of attempt at some sort of artificial law that the simulators have come up with. That’s a depressing thought!” says Beane.
This cosmic ray test may help reveal whether we are just lines of code in an artificial Matrix, where the established rules of physics may be bent, or even broken. But if learning that truth means accepting that you may never know for sure what’s real — including yourself — would you want to know?
There is no turning back, Neo: Do you take the blue pill, or the red pill?
A toothpaste factory had a problem. They sometimes shipped empty boxes without the tube inside. This challenged their perceived quality with the buyers and distributors. Understanding how important the relationship with them was, the CEO of the company assembled his top people. They decided to hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem. The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, and third-parties selected. Six months (and $8 million) later they had a fantastic solution – on time, on budget, and high quality. Everyone in the project was pleased.
They solved the problem by using a high-tech precision scale that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box weighed less than it should. The line would stop, someone would walk over, remove the defective box, and then press another button to re-start the line. As a result of the new package monitoring process, no empty boxes were being shipped out of the factory.
With no more customer complaints, the CEO felt the $8 million was well spent. He then reviewed the line statistics report and discovered the number of empty boxes picked up by the scale in the first week was consistent with projections, however, the next three weeks were zero! The estimated rate should have been at least a dozen boxes a day. He had the engineers check the equipment, they verified the report as accurate.
Puzzled, the CEO traveled down to the factory, viewed the part of the line where the precision scale was installed, and observed just ahead of the new $8 million dollar solution sat a $20 desk fan blowing the empty boxes off the belt and into a bin. He asked the line supervisor what that was about.
"Oh, that," the supervisor replied.” Bert, the kid from maintenance, put it there because he was tired of walking over, removing the box and re-starting the line every time the bell rang.”
OK, sure, in retrospect, it doesn’t sound like one of my better ideas. Hiring a personal assistant based in India—a stranger in a Mumbai call center who would handle my email, appointments, travel bookings, and, I hoped, any other simple task I threw at him—seems like one of those manifestly stupid things that a well-functioning adult should not do. There are all sorts of obvious red flags: How could I trust this person with the most intimate details of my personal and professional life? How could I know that he’d be a good proxy for me when dealing with others? How could I be sure he wouldn’t rob me blind?
I understand all of this in retrospect. (And I would have understood already if I’d read Maria Semple’s acclaimed novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, wherein the perils of hiring a remote online assistant are a major plot point—but if I’d had time to read it, I wouldn’t need a remote online assistant.) In my defense, though, let me say this: I had a dream. Some people yearn for wealth, others fame. Me, I’ve always aimed for a life free of annoyance, of drudgery, of all of the little pointless things you’ve got to do to keep living and working—things like answering email and changing out of your pajamas and making sure you show up to appointments on time. During the course of my professional life, I’ve gotten better at doing these things (except for the pajamas), but it’s never fun, and I’m always teetering on the edge of work-life chaos. Thus my personal definition of success: If I ever achieved a station in life that would allow me to pay other people to do the things I hated doing most, that’s when I’d know I’d made it.
I can’t remember how I first heard of outsourced Indian assistants. Something caused me to Google it, and when I landed on TasksEveryDay.com—one of several firms offering such services—I knew I’d have to try it out. This was late last year. My wife and I were about to have a second kid, and we both felt barely able to cope with just one. I estimated that mindless but necessary tasks took up at least five hours of my week. If I could shrink that by half—or, in my dreams, to nothing—I’d be in heaven. Three years ago I tried out a couple virtual-assistant services based in America, and I found them to be awesome. But those sites—Fancy Hands and TaskRabbit—are best for handling a few tasks per month; I wanted a more permanent assistant, someone who’d be there at least an hour or two each day to help me with whatever I needed.
TasksEveryDay promised just such a service for around $10 an hour, which is about half the rate I’d have had to pay a personal assistant in my area. Looking at the site now, I see things that should have clued me in to the possibility that the rates weren’t low just because of global labor arbitrage. It’s rife with clip art, its marketing copy is riddled with not-quite-correct punctuation and capitalization, and customer testimonials bear more than a passing resemblance to hostage videos. But in my stupor I was blind to these flaws. What’s more, my negotiations with the company’s sales representative went smoothly. The woman on the phone was polite, spoke English fluently, and expertly soothed my fears about how the site’s assistants would handle my personal data. In addition to a nondisclosure agreement, the company constantly monitors its workers’ online activities, its call center is outfitted with surveillance cameras, and assistants aren’t allowed to install any storage devices (like USB disks) into their computers. I was sold.
Things started promisingly. The saleswoman introduced me to my assistant, a young man I’ll call Mr. F. He sent me an email with his picture—big, slicked-back hair, a boyish face, Bible-salesman suit—and a promise to “put in my best efforts to ensure that all your tasks are executed 100% efficiently.”
At 9 a.m. the next day, I shared my Google Calendar and Gmail accounts with Mr. F, and I gave him his first task. I needed a flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis. I gave him my dates. I wanted times and prices. Once he’d found an ideal flight, I planned to give him my credit card number so he could book it for me.
But after sending him my request, I heard nothing. After 40 minutes, I sent him a follow-up to make sure he’d received the task. About 40 minutes after that, he responded: “Yes I have received your email and I have started working on it.”
Huh. This task should have taken him about 10 minutes; why was he just getting started after a nearly an hour and a half? Around noon—about three hours (and $30) after I’d assigned the task—Mr. F finally sent me an email to say he was done. Now I saw why he’d taken so long: Instead of looking for the best two or three flights that conformed to my calendar, he’d created a spreadsheet listing all the details of 10 flights. This was madness: I could have gotten a similar list myself in 30 seconds on any travel site. What I needed was someone to help me narrow down my options, not replicate a Web search. And why did he think I’d need an Excel version? Why didn’t he just send me a link to his search?
I chalked it up to first-day troubles. The weekend was coming up, and I didn’t need Mr. F on Monday morning. I told him to be ready to work on Tuesday. But on Tuesday I heard nothing. Not on Wednesday either. The whole week passed. Then another week. If I had a personal assistant, I would have had him call up TasksEveryDay to find out what kind of two-bit operation they were running. But I had no such help, so the task of calling up the firm to complain was added to a dozen other low-priority tasks on my to-do list. I did revoke Mr. F’s access to my Gmail and calendar.
About a month after his first and only day on the job, I got an email from Mr. F asking if I needed anything done. He made no mention of the mysterious monthlong hiatus. I told him to stuff it and asked to speak with his manager. When the manager emailed, I asked for a refund. (Oh, did I mention I’d prepaid for 40 hours? Yes, I did. Because that was a better deal, and I am always looking for a good deal.) The manager explained that a refund was “not possible,” but he’d be happy to set me up with another assistant.
Let’s call the second assistant Mr. P. In an email, he introduced himself as my “Dedicated Graduate Virtual Assistant,” which sounded like something out of a George Saunders story. Like Mr. F, Mr. P also promised to “put in my best efforts to ensure that all your tasks are executed 100% efficiently.”
Mr. P was not a total wreck, but that was mostly because I’d been so chastened by my experience with Mr. F that I gave the new guy only the most mindless tasks I could think of. I asked him to call up American Airlines to find out how I could use a credit for a flight I’d missed. He got an answer within half an hour. I asked him to call up my bank to ask about a charge on my account. For security reasons the bank wouldn’t give him any answers, but I appreciated his effort.
But any time I gave Mr. P a task that was just slightly difficult, results were disappointing. One morning I asked him if he could transcribe an hourlong interview I’d done with a source. “Yes! Sure, I can do transcription,” he replied enthusiastically. I sent him the recording, and a few hours later, he sent me an email to say, “I have done with the transcription task, But need to do some corrections again.” When I looked at the transcription, it was a mess—a 12,000-word tangle of words that didn’t make any syntactic sense together, with only a handful of paragraph breaks inserted arbitrarily. Here’s a sampling: “And my reaction was always always universally will wire. He really asking the Swihart you asking your own what they think about what you’re building a few….”
It was obvious that Mr. P hadn’t really transcribed the interview—instead he’d fed it through transcription software, something I could have done myself. When I angrily complained, he said, “I got your email, ok I will do the transcription again manually.” It took him about 8 hours to do the hourlong recording. He didn’t insert any paragraph breaks.
By the end of my time with Mr. P, I was having trouble coming up with tasks to give him. Pretty much everything that I’d find truly helpful—looking through my email to politely decline invitations and requests I’d been sent, or to figure out whether and when I could take certain meetings, or to remind me to reach out to so-and-so for such-and-such—was off-limits. These tasks were either too delicate, requiring more deftness with the language than he seemed capable of, or too personal, requiring more knowledge about my work, industry, and life than I wanted to share.
At some point it dawned on me that I’d stumbled upon the fatal flaw inherent in any virtual-assistant relationship. To be truly useful, an assistant needs to understand everything about your life and work. An assistant is a confidant. But it’s impossible to develop a deep, trusting relationship with a guy you know only by email—a guy who communicates with you in canned professional-ese, who must be monitored by security cameras to make sure he doesn’t rob you. TasksEveryDay’s assistants were pretty terrible, but even if they’d flawlessly handled every task I’d given them, they wouldn’t have been nearly as good as a local person. That person would cost a lot more. But it’d be worth every penny.
These animations don’t show us anything we didn’t already know. Earth always grows icier in winter and greener in summer (even if climate change is beginning to tweak that balance). But they’re still mesmerizing. They let us see the slow, enormous pulse of our planet’s seasons all at once, in just a few seconds, over and over and over.
NASA satellites took these images, but they were stitched together by John Nelson, a user-experience expert for software firm IDV Solutions. Nelson, who lives in Michigan, offers this explanation for why such a simple glimpse of our planet can be so powerful:
"Having spent much of my life living near the center of that mitten-shaped peninsula in North America, I have had a consistent seasonal metronome through which I track the years of my life. When I stitch together what can be an impersonal snapshot of an entire planet, all of the sudden I see a thing with a heartbeat. I can track one location throughout a year to compare the annual push and pull of snow and plant life there, while in my periphery I see the oscillating wave of life advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating. And I’m reassured by it."
Kristen Lepore is a young animator who can conjure worlds of emotion from the everyday stuff of life. Here, she takes a lump of snow, a lump of sand, assorted detritus, and a bottle and creates an achingly bittersweet love story.
Colgate has created a very ingenious advertising campaign to promote their dental floss, but before I explain to you the main detail of these images, I will let you appreciate them quietly…
Alright, now that you had time to quietly observe the images: in the first one you will now notice that she has one finger too many in her hand, in the second one a phantom arm is floating there, and in the third one the man has only one ear.
The campaign attained its purpose because it proved that food remains on your teeth draw more attention than any physical defect.
Boy, you could have a field day with this one in a perceptual psychology class, anthropology, art history – amazing how our mind works.
PLEASE Israeli, STOP it already! ;( there are many better things to do! or otherwise, why don’t you just shoot yourself instead of taking orders to KILL!
Very strange, as this photo appeared way back in 29 March 2002 in aljazeeraportal (http://arabic.aljazeeraportal.net/News/archive/archive?ArchiveId=29217 from 2002) with the inscription شهيد فلسطيني ملقى على الأرض وجرافاتالاحتلال تواصل عمليات الهدم في رام الله (Palestinian martyr lying on the ground and bulldozers continue demolitions in Ramallah). This photo was in the article الاحتلال يقصف مكتب عرفات ومخاوف على حياته (Palestinian forces vows painful blows to Israel. Israel shells Arafat’s office with fears for his life)
If you decide to fabricate a photo’s explanation, and lie about Israel’s actions, at least try to make the exposure of the lie a little more challenging.
Feel free to stop reading this if your career is going great, you’re thrilled with your life and you’re happy with your relationships. Enjoy the rest of your day, friend, this article is not for you. You’re doing a great job, we’re all proud of you. So you don’t feel like you wasted your click, here’s a picture of Lenny Kravitz wearing a gigantic scarf.
For the rest of you, I want you to try something: Name five impressive things about yourself. Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything youare (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts). If you found that difficult, well, this is for you, and you are going to fucking hate hearing it. My only defense is that this is what I wish somebody had said to me around 1995 or so.
#6. The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You
Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.
Getty "OK, which one is the injured one?"
You ask, “Are you a doctor?”
The guy says, “No.”
You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”
At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.
Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my (wife/husband/best friend/parent) is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”
Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?
In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”
Getty "I don’t get it. Would it help if I put on a lab jacket? Here, one sec, let me just …"
So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.
If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.
Getty "Here’s that shit you needed. Now fuck off."
Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.
Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere. For you see …
#5. The Hippies Were Wrong
Here is the greatest scene in the history of movies (WARNING: EXTREME NSFW LANGUAGE):
For those of you who can’t watch videos, it’s the famous speech Alec Baldwin gives in the cinematic masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross. Baldwin’s character — whom you assume is the villain — addresses a room full of dudes and tears them a new asshole, telling them that they’re all about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned:
"Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”
It’s brutal, rude and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing.
Getty "First graders, welcome to Mr. Baldwin’s third period art class — is everyone here? Well, I’m goin’ anyway."
That scene changed my life. I’d program my alarm clock to play it for me every morning if I knew how. Alec Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar for that movie and that’s the only scene he’s in. As smarter people have pointed out, the genius of that speech is that half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is “Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?” and the other half think, “Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!”
"If you were in that room, some of you would understand this as a work, but feed off the energy of the message anyway, welcome the coach’s cursing at you, ‘this guy is awesome!’; while some of you would take it personally, this guy is a jerk, you have no right to talk to me like that, or — the standard maneuver when narcissism is confronted with a greater power — quietly seethe and fantasize about finding information that will out him as a hypocrite. So satisfying."
Getty ”I swear, if he mentions my hair, I’ll slap his face so har- Yes, sir, I’m listening. I’m sorry.”
That excerpt is from an insightful critique of “hipsters” and why they seem to have so much trouble getting jobs (that doesn’t begin to do it justice, go read the whole thing), and the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world. For instance, some people want to respond to that speech with Tyler Durden’s line from Fight Club: “You are not your job.”
But, well, actually, you totally are. Granted, your “job” and your means of employment might not be the same thing, but in both cases you are nothing more than the sum total of your useful skills. For instance, being a good mother is a job that requires a skill. It’s something a person can do that is useful to other members of society. But make no mistake: Your “job” — the useful thing you do for other people — is all you are.
There is a reason why surgeons get more respect than comedy writers. There is a reason mechanics get more respect than unemployed hipsters. There is a reason your job will become your label if your death makes the news (“NFL Linebacker Dies in Murder/Suicide”). Tyler said, “You are not your job,” but he also founded and ran a successful soap company and became the head of an international social and political movement. He was totally his job.
Getty It was the irony that many people missed from that movie.
Or think of it this way: Remember when Chick-fil-A came out against gay marriage? And how despite the protests, the company continues to sell millions of sandwiches every day? It’s not because the country agrees with them; it’s because they do their job of making delicious sandwiches well. And that’s all that matters.
You don’t have to like it. I don’t like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes.
Getty "This is bullshit. I have a completely clean criminal record, and this is the thanks I get?"
If you protest that you’re not a shallow capitalist materialist and that you disagree that money is everything, I can only say: Who said anything about money? You’re missing the larger point.
#4. What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People
Let’s try a non-money example so you don’t get hung up on that. The demographic that Cracked writes for is heavy on 20-something males. So on our message boards and in my many inboxes I read several dozen stories a year from miserable, lonely guys who insist that women won’t come near them despite the fact that they are just the nicest guys in the world. I can explain what is wrong with this mindset, but it would probably be better if I let Alec Baldwin explain it:
In this case, Baldwin is playing the part of the attractive women in your life. They won’t put it as bluntly as he does — society has trained us not to be this honest with people — but the equation is the same. “Nice guy? Who gives a shit? If you want to work here, close.”
So, what do you bring to the table? Because the Zooey Deschanel lookalike in the bookstore that you’ve been daydreaming about moisturizes her face for an hour every night and feels guilty when she eats anything other than salad for lunch. She’s going to be a surgeon in 10 years. What do you do?
Getty "Well, I’m fucking wicked at capture the flag.”
"What, so you’re saying that I can’t get girls like that unless I have a nice job and make lots of money?"
No, your brain jumps to that conclusion so you have an excuse to write off everyone who rejects you by thinking that they’re just being shallow and selfish. I’m asking what do you offer? Are you smart? Funny? Interesting? Talented? Ambitious? Creative? OK, now what do you do to demonstrate those attributes to the world? Don’t say that you’re a nice guy — that’s the bare minimum. Pretty girls have guys being nice to them 36 times a day. The patient is bleeding in the street. Do you know how to operate or not?
"Well, I’m not sexist or racist or greedy or shallow or abusive! Not like those other douchebags!"
I’m sorry, I know that this is hard to hear, but if all you can do is list a bunch of faults you don’t have, then back the fuck away from the patient. There’s a witty, handsome guy with a promising career ready to step in and operate.
Getty "Wait, I said I wouldn’t hit you!”
Does that break your heart? OK, so now what? Are you going to mope about it, or are you going to learn how to do surgery? It’s up to you, but don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar. Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick. You’re like a new movie whose title is This Movie Is in English, and its tagline is “The actors are clearly visible.”
I think this is why you can be a “nice guy” and still feel terrible about yourself. Specifically …
#3. You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything
"So, what, you’re saying that I should pick up a book on how to get girls?"
Only if step one in the book is “Start making yourself into the type of person girls want to be around.”
Getty "Come ooooon. I know I hid some vodka in here somewhere."
Because that’s the step that gets skipped — it’s always “How can I get a job?” and not “How can I become the type of person employers want?” It’s “How can I get pretty girls to like me?” instead of “How can I become the type of person that pretty girls like?” See, because that second one could very well require giving up many of your favorite hobbies and paying more attention to your appearance, and God knows what else. You might even have to change your personality.
"But why can’t I find someone who just likes me for me?" you ask. The answer is because humans need things. The victim is bleeding, and all you can do is look down and complain that there aren’t more gunshot wounds that just fix themselves?
Here’s another video (NSFW):
Everyone who watched that video instantly became a little happier, although not all for the same reasons. Can you do that for people? Why not? What’s stopping you from strapping on your proverbial thong and cape and taking to your proverbial stage and flapping your proverbial penis at people? That guy knows the secret to winning at human life: that doing … whatever you call that … was better than not doing it.
"But I’m not good at anything!" Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything. I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.
Don’t like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell — I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result.
The bad news is that you have no other choice. If you want to work here, close.
Because in my non-expert opinion, you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just “love you for you” — that’s why you’re miserable and sending me private messages asking me what I think you should do with your life.
Getty Step One: Get up.
Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.
And if you hate hearing this and are responding with something you heard as a kid that sounds like “It’s what’s on the inside that matters!” then I can only say …
#2. What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do
Being in the business I’m in, I know dozens of aspiring writers. They think of themselves as writers, they introduce themselves as writers at parties, they know that deep inside, they have the heart of a writer. The only thing they’re missing is that minor final step, where they actually fucking write things.
But really, does that matter? Is “writing things” all that important when deciding who is and who is not truly a “writer”?
For the love of God, yes.
Getty I’ve known “writers” who produced less content than what’s on this woman’s grocery list.
See, there’s a common defense to everything I’ve said so far, and to every critical voice in your life. It’s the thing your ego is saying to you in order to prevent you from having to do the hard work of improving: “I know I’m a good person on the inside.” It may also be phrased as “I know who I am” or “I just have to be me.”
Don’t get me wrong; who you are inside is everything — the guy who built a house for his family from scratch did it because of who he was inside. Every bad thing you’ve ever done has started with a bad impulse, some thought ricocheting around inside your skull until you had to act on it. And every good thing you’ve done is the same — “who you are inside” is the metaphorical dirt from which your fruit grows.
Getty Notice how the camera is pointed up, and not at the base of the tree?
But here’s what everyone needs to know, and what many of you can’t accept:
"You" are nothing but the fruit.
Nobody cares about your dirt. “Who you are inside” is meaningless aside from what it produces for other people.
Inside, you have great compassion for poor people. Great. Does that result in you doing anything about it? Do you hear about some terrible tragedy in your community and say, “Oh, those poor children. Let them know that they are in my thoughts”? Because fuck you if so — find out what they need and help provide it. A hundred million people watched that Kony video, virtually all of whom kept those poor African children “in their thoughts.” What did the collective power of those good thoughts provide? Jack fucking shit. Children die every day because millions of us tell ourselves that caring is just as good as doing. It’s an internal mechanism controlled by the lazy part of your brain to keep you from actually doing work.
Getty "I just wanted to tell you that you’re in my thoughts. Good luck — let me know if that cured you."
How many of you are walking around right now saying, “She/he would love me if she/he only knew what an interesting person I am!” Really? How do all of your interesting thoughts and ideas manifest themselves in the world? What do they cause you to do? If your dream girl or guy had a hidden camera that followed you around for a month, would they be impressed with what they saw? Remember, they can’t read your mind — they can only observe. Would they want to be a part of that life?
Because all I’m asking you to do is apply the same standard to yourself that you apply to everyone else. Don’t you have that annoying Christian friend whose only offer to help anyone ever is to “pray for them”? Doesn’t it drive you nuts? I’m not even commenting on whether or not prayer works; it doesn’t change the fact that they chose the one type of help that doesn’t require them to get off the sofa. They abstain from every vice, they think clean thoughts, their internal dirt is as pure as can be, but what fruit grows from it? And they should know this better than anybody — I stole the fruit metaphor from the Bible. Jesus said something to the effect of “a tree is judged by its fruit” over and over and over. Granted, Jesus never said, “If you want to work here, close.” No, he said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Getty "And then a buffalo will stare stupidly into your soul while slowly chewing grass and softly farting."
The people didn’t react well to being told that, just as the salesmen didn’t react well to Alec Baldwin telling them that they needed to grow some balls or resign themselves to shining his shoes. Which brings us to the final point …
#1. Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement
The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict.
So even now, some of you reading this are feeling your brain bombard you with knee-jerk reasons to reject it. From experience, I can say that these seem to come in the form of …
*Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult
"Who is he to call me lazy and worthless! A good person would never talk to me like this! He wrote this whole thing just to feel superior to me and to make me feel bad about my life! I’m going to think up my own insult to even the score!"
*Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message
"Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go dig up something on him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid! This guy is so pretentious, it makes me puke! I watched his old rap video on YouTube and thought his rhymes sucked!”
Getty "When you get to where I am in life, you feel free to give me advice! Until then, you’re nothing but meat and guesses."
*Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content
"I’m going to dig through here until I find a joke that is offensive when taken out of context, and then talk and think only about that! I’ve heard that a single offensive word can render an entire book invisible!”
*Revising Your Own History
"Things aren’t so bad! I know that I was threatening suicide last month, but I’m feeling better now! It’s entirely possible that if I just keep doing exactly what I’m doing, eventually things will work out! I’ll get my big break, and if I keep doing favors for that pretty girl, eventually she’ll come around!"
*Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out Your True Self
"Oh, so I guess I’m supposed to get rid of all of my manga and instead go to the gym for six hours a day and get a spray tan like those Jersey Shore douchebags? Because THAT IS THE ONLY OTHER OPTION.”
Getty "Way to leave ‘the hood’ behind, asshole. New house or not, you’ll always be white trash!"
And so on. Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.
Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.
It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something.
Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.
Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing. “Why should I create anything when the things other people create suck? I would totally have written a novel by now, but I’m going to wait for something good, I don’t want to write the next Twilight!” As long as they never produce anything, it will forever be perfect and beyond reproach. Or if they do produce something, they’ll make sure they do it with detached irony. They’ll make it intentionally bad to make it clear to everyone else that this isn’t their real effort. Their real effort would have been amazing. Not like the shit you made.
Read our article comments — when they get nasty, it’s always from the same angle: Cracked needs to fire this columnist. This asshole needs to stop writing. Don’t make any more videos. It always boils down to “Stop creating. This is different from what I would have made, and the attention you’re getting is making me feel bad about myself.”
Don’t be that person. If you are that person, don’t be that person any more. This is what’s making people hate you. This is what’s making you hate yourself.
Getty What are you going to do with it? Hunt witches or kick off the Olympics?
So how about this: one year. The end of 2013, that’s our deadline. Or a year from whenever you read this. While other people are telling you “Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to lose 15 pounds this year!” I’m going to say let’s pledge to do fucking anything — add any skill, any improvement to your human tool set, and get good enough at it to impress people. Don’t ask me what — hell, pick something at random if you don’t know. Take a class in karate, or ballroom dancing, or pottery. Learn to bake. Build a birdhouse. Learn massage. Learn a programming language. Film a porno. Adopt a superhero persona and fight crime. Start a YouTube vlog. Write for Cracked.
But the key is, I don’t want you to focus on something great that you’re going to make happen to you (“I’m going to find a girlfriend, I’m going to make lots of money …”). I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people.
Getty "Holy shit, by learning Spanish, I just gained the ability to speak to 400 million people I previously couldn’t."
"I don’t have the money to take a cooking class." Then fucking Google "how to cook." They’ve even filtered out the porn now, it’s easier than ever. Damn it, you have to kill those excuses. Or they will kill you.
If you want to make note of your project in the forum thread or the comments and check in this time next year, knock yourself out. I’ll be curious to see if even one person actually does this, but if so we’ll look back, not just on whether or not we actually followed through, but why. You have nothing to lose, and the world needs you. Here’s a video of a corgi rolling down some stairs.