Earth vs. the UniverseJuly 12, 2019
Lately, I’m anxious. Like, all the time. .
Or, glass half full … I’m uber-zen and only concerned about two things:
— Every person on earth and their opinion of me
— The crushing weight of being alive
Things that help: alcohol, exercise, being around my boys, and talking about it.
From 0–30 years of age, I was never anxious. When I was 11, the principal of Fairburn Elementary School knocked on my door and informed me, in my pajamas, that I needed to come back to school. My two-week self-imposed break from the sixth grade, binge-watching cartoons, had come to an abrupt end. I knew he could rat me out to my mom, so I agreed. But I still wasn’t that bothered, much less freaked out.
In our current-day household, we lose it if one of the boys leaves a homework folder at home. Dad hangs up on the seven people on his conference call, jumps in the car in his pajamas, takes the Tesla so he can travel the roads of a quiet community at 90 mph, and gets the holy folder to its patron saint of the fifth grade. Thank Jesus, crisis averted.
Research links helicopter parenting to anxiety and depression. That means I should have been an exceptionally happy child, since in my household an overbearing parent was not an issue. I skipped the sixth grade for two weeks, and my mom didn’t notice. Sort of a Home Alone times 10 scenario with a single mom and a much less likable kid.
At UCLA I was on academic probation, then subject to dismissal several times. That would have cemented a lower-middle-class future for the less likable Macaulay Culkin. It rolled right off of me. After my MBA, I declined an offer from a blue-chip consulting firm to start a business, with no capital, much less an idea. No big deal, I’ll figure it out.
Divorce, firms failing, waking up in NYC at 34 with no friends, family, job, or economic security felt like freedom instead of failure. This lack of anxiety or concern is also known as sleepwalking through life.
Around 40, I — unfortunately — became more thoughtful. Contemplating the finite nature of life, developing empathy, and recognizing, finally, the impact of my actions on others. For about 10 years, I had just the right amount of anxiety. Thoughtful, but not afraid. Bold, but not reckless. But lately, I’m too cautious. Overthinking, risk-averse … anxious. What if X, Y, or Z happens? What if I let these people down, if this doesn’t work out the way we’d all hoped?
I’m doing a bunch of podcasts now, and I enjoy them. (Weekly with Kara Swisher, and recently with Nick Bilton, Barry Ritholtz, and Adam Conover.) Part of my rap is to be provocative. My heart’s in the right place, most of the time. To me, being bold and fearless in your thinking is a key trait to learn and master. People I admire — Muhammad Ali, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Simmons — brought an alchemy of attributes that resulted in genius. One static element of the alchemy: they were fearless. Unafraid to provoke.
ProfG Is No RBG
My provocation can burst into the offensive and worse, be just wrong. After most public appearances and podcasts I walk outside and think of several things I said that could melt the reactor of our knee-jerk liberalism and set off a Chernobyl-like explosion, spewing shame radiation on the 80 mph winds of social media. I’m clearly watching too much HBO.
Anxiety, like all our emotions, plays a key role in evolutionary progress.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream.
— Harvard Health
When you aren’t thinking straight and decide it’s a good idea to ride the Intimidator 305 (one of the tallest roller coasters on the East Coast), your reptile brain kicks in, about the moment you’re strapped in. It reminds you there is little upside and a non-zero probability you’re going to get hurt or at least get nauseous. We’re programmed to want salty, sugary, and fatty foods, as these have traditionally been in short supply. We have trouble modulating our instincts despite these foods now being produced at institutional scale. Similarly, we have trouble modulating anxiety.
I’m involved in a couple new businesses, and none make any sense. It’s giving me indigestion. But here’s the rub, no new business is rational, or it would already exist. Any active duty service (wo)man should be a hot mess, as war is dangerous. However, they are mostly young, and their poor rational thinking doesn’t have the same guardrails old people have.
These same old people realize our prosperity and opportunities as a nation directly correlate to our ability to find people whose guardrails are still forming, so they will leave their loved ones to put themselves in harm’s way to protect an idea and a people. Societies manufacture accoutrements (the draft, cool uniforms, medals, nationalism, half-time commercials, and flyovers) to keep the rational brain from forming so young men and women will take enormous risks to protect our “way of life.” “Way of life” in a capitalist society is Latin for “the wealth of old people.” But that’s another post.
What I Know
The Earth and our species have guardrails. The species needs to survive, and societies can’t function without norms, modulation, and cooperation. We can’t all quit our jobs and start a boy band or pursue the most powerful position in the world after getting a total of 8,515 votes to secure mayorship of a town in Indiana.
However, the universe — similar to the honey badger — just don’t give a sh*t about the species, anxiety, or modulation. The universe thinks long-term and needs people to move the needle, in a cosmic way. The universe only acknowledges you as a speck of dust in a blink in time when you cure polio or put a man on a rock 250,000 miles away. The universe needs organisms that are too stupid to recognize danger or failure, and whose reptilian brain doesn’t get in the way.
Our world belongs to the bold, but the universe belongs to the mad/genius/crazy. War, entrepreneurship, and running for president are a young (wo)man’s game. The crazy ages out of us. Most rock stars peak in their twenties, and many Nobel laureates’ prize-winning work was done in grad school.
The universe runs on fusion. The source of all life, the sun, generates energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei into helium. Life — much less any genius idea — is a function of fusion. As the universe wants to prosper, it puts in place a series of incentives for fusing/connecting with others. Our satisfaction and life expectancy are a function of our relationships.
I have no problem fusing/connecting with my oldest (11). This weekend we watched the Women’s World Cup, got our feet rubbed, and ear-candled each other. Just an 11-year-old and his dad channeling The Golden Girls. My youngest (8), more difficult. I’m anxious about him, specifically our relationship. I know he loves me, but sometimes I worry he doesn’t like me.
The good news: we’ve found a point of connection — falling. When he was two, I fell asleep next to him, and he rolled off the bed, as two-year-olds do. The thud woke me. Panicked, I peered over the edge of the bed, expecting to see him lifeless in a pool of blood. Instead, he lifted his head, paused for a second, and let out the most joyous laugh I’ve heard. The kind of laugh you want as the last sound you hear on earth.
Since then, we’ve bonded over jumping off things: beds, ledges, upper decks on boats. He has no rational, irrational, or reptile fear or anxiety whatsoever. His dad not only realizes how stupid this is but has developed mild vertigo jumping off sh*t trying to bond with his eight-year-old. Nolan doesn’t like me much, but when I grab his hand before we take flight, I am his trusted partner in crime, and we are one. After hitting the ground/water we get a high from the release of endorphins. Together, we are closer.
I’m more anxious and afraid than I’ve ever been. And it’s taking a toll. However, I continue to be irrational and jump off things, as the universe speaks to me, and demands it.
Life is so rich,
Wow. This gave me all the feels Scott. Thank you for giving this space to reorient and reflect.
lovely Sunday morning read. Thanks for sharing
What a wonderfully insightful write up on mid-life angst. Much appreciated.
I loved this so much, I saved it in my inbox and just circled back to read it a second time.
Perhaps that’s really what happened to the dinosaurs… the reptilian brain finally got in the way just too often!
these articles are great – i like you so much more than when i heard you speak at french perfumery gig in Forcalquier a few years back … the ice cold prof know-it-all back then – where did this warm humanity come from?? you seem a very cool guy these days… we’re all on a journey I guess (nice boat btw)
Chill, Prof, chill! Why should you be worried about what people think of you? You’ve proven yourself over and over and your eight year old will soon both love and like you too, Mark my words. So, count your blessings as they’re many. Compare that to the situation you describe at age 34 but at more than twice that age, dealing with maxed out credit cards, staving off foreclosure and possible bankruptcy due to some bad decisions all around that’s not freedom but failure. Not throwing in the towel though quite yet and still trying to launch my digital agency against tough odds!
Hey Butch, grab Sundance’s hand and keep jumping’!
Just because your get up and go, got up and went, does not mean all are so afflicted; especially we architect’s who have such a long learning curve — we cannot see our artistry until years after our flash of brilliance; unlike the oil artist we cannot change it (just plant ivy). Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater at 65; twenty years later, he did the Guggenheim; Thomas Jefferson founded UVA, designed the amazing campus and instituted the curriculum and professor/student/slave living arrangements at eighty; I’m 84 and in the middle of redesigning the planet as a gift to my grandchildren and their kids — stop whining and start living – we need you.
Thank you! It’s not just me.
Are we too old to keep trying building our startups in mid 50s? My anxiety is that we wouldn’t be able to help our ASD child living a meaningful life after our death..Or the police/government would put him in jail for things that he would do because of his anxiety….
Very thoughtful, and moving. Thank you.
Class. Love the photos too!
Scott, I fucking love every single one of these articles. Thanks for sharing.
First world problems. Be thankful.
God, ME TOO. When I was 21 I drove drunk on PCH (Pacific Coast Hwy) stupidly and fearlessly. Now I’m afraid to drive on PCH for any reason. Where I live now it doesn’t rain, it floods and I’m terrified, too scared to drive in that sh*@. But I might start a business this year. So yeah we keep jumping.
Soooo.Damned.Good. Bravo amigo.
Thanks for sharing. Your public wisdom has come at a good time for me as an older, divorced new Dad who’s spent the majority of life in a clueless fog.