Alligators don’t fuck around. They have enormous jaws capable of pulverizing anything in their path. They have thick skin and bony plates that can stop (small) bullets. 37 million years of evolution have produced the animal equivalent of an Abrams tank.
And it turns out that alligators are even more hardcore than that. Apparently alligators can survive for months trapped in ice by freezing their snout just above the surface and using it as a snorkel. As a lake begins to freeze, alligators position their noses just above the surface while the ice envelopes the rest of their head. They enter a hibernation-like state and wake back up when the ice thaws.
As somebody who has felt that death was only moments away upon leaving home without a jacket in sub-50 degree fall weather, I felt compelled to give these gators a tip of the hat - or should I say, beanie?*
* Really sorry about this.
I think most of us consider “luck” to be something that’s fundamentally random and outside of our control. The Universe doles out good fortune unfairly and seemingly at random.
But what if the Universe is constantly hurling lucky breaks our way but we’re just too damn blind to notice? Maybe some of us aren’t “unlucky” so much as we are oblivious to opportunity.
There was an eccentric psychologist, Richard Wiseman, who ran some experiments back in the 90’s to test whether or not luck was related to mindset. In one experiment, he recruited people who identified as either “lucky” or “unlucky” and put a $20 bill in the street.
In general, the self-proclaimed lucky people noticed the cash while the unlucky walked right by it.
Over the next ten years he ran a bunch of similar experiments, ultimately concluding that “luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance….[people’s] thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune.”
Wiseman came to believe that there were four main ways people could create their own luck:
- Become skilled at noticing chance opportunities
- Make decisions by listening to intuition
- Create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations
- Adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good
Now some of those are admittedly vague, but it’s an interesting mental model.
Maybe if we occasionally took off our blinders, we’d realize the Universe isn’t withholding as many opportunities as we thought. “Now that I think about it, didn’t x person mention they have a cousin in y industry that I’m interested in? I should ask for an intro…”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines luck as “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions.”
You’re not going to get far with that attitude, dictionary authors.
A quick caveat: I realize it’s possible to read the above and think, “this is some REPUBLICAN talk. Are you saying people in poverty have a mindset problem?” No. Clearly, some people receive (or don’t!) a baseline of fortune without any intervention on their part. But as you climb Maslow’s hierarchy, it seems that “luck” might become more self-deterministic.
Three humans landed safely back on Earth today after living in space for 168 days.
I realize that the International Space Station has been around for a while now, so maybe a sentence like “living in space for 168 days” doesn’t get the juices pumping anymore. But, I mean, come on. That is objectively an awesome thing.
It's also worth mentioning that the home countries of each astronaut (Japan, Russia, USA) have been been at war with each other at some point in the last hundred years, whether formally in WWII or “informally” during the Cold War and today.
And, yet, humans from each tribe traveled to space and back together peacefully - bound by the human spirit of exploration and curiosity.
I have no idea.
We should all probably stay curious and keep learning, though. It seems likely that we’ll need to reinvent ourselves a few times throughout life to keep up and thrive.
I’m not here to say whether that’s good or bad. I’m just here to say:
Unprecedented change is coming.
It’s not like the changes we’ve seen in the past few decades are the result of humans collectively deciding, “okay, it’s time to start changing stuff.” No, progress is extremely slow at first but compounds as a society becomes more and more capable. It’s a pain in the ass to construct a building, but once you do it’s far easier to spend your days inside doing research and intellectual work which propel our capabilities along far faster.
“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense 'intuitive linear' view,” the author and futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote at the beginning of this century, “So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate).”
100 years worth of progress back in the day probably meant discovering a few new berries that can kill you or getting slightly better at hunting a specific animal.
What does 100 years worth of progress look like when most humans on Earth are literate, have enough food to eat, live far longer, are given a basic education, have tools to communicate instantly with all humans across the planet, and have access to the collective tome of human knowledge?
We’re about to find out, and I bet it looks something like this:
We tend to view the reality we’re born into as “normal.” We inherit a version of the world and get used to it quickly.
For most of human history, that made sense. In 1,000 AD, your life was not going to be that different from the life of your grandparents or their grandparents. If your dad was a carpenter, you’d probably be a carpenter too. You didn’t really need to contextualize where you sat in history since so little was bound to change. Things changed even less during our hunter-gatherer days (which, as a friendly reminder, was the vast majority of human history - which is itself nuts).
But today is fundamentally different and our intuition needs to catch the hell up. Today, your dad may have been a carpenter but it’s possible that you’ll make a career as a Self-Driving Food Truck Machine Learning Engineer.
The world we’ve inherited IS different than the world our parents grew up in. A reality TV star is president, we can summon strangers to give us rides with a handheld supercomputer, and the majority of man’s knowledge is instantly accessible by anybody on Earth with a barely-functional computer.
The signs that our world is anything but normal surround us. Allow me to offer a few that I noticed while hanging out at a random lake in the Pacific Northwest last week:
Absurd Thing #1
I met a woman from India who was visiting the U.S. for the week. India is 7,729 miles away from where I met her. She also spoke English. There is absolutely no historical precedent for a human being able to easily visit a tribe seven thousand miles away and to become fluent in the language of that foreign tribe before arriving. Both of these things are possible largely thanks to modern aviation and global communication networks - both of which are less than 100 years old.
Absurd Thing #2
Two dudes were flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (a cheap-ass drone) using a device (an iPhone) with more computational power than that the wealthiest nation-state used to land men on the moon just half a century earlier. Not only do the devices use things that were discovered or invented in the last two centuries to communicate (radio waves, machine language represented as bits), but many of the raw materials in both items didn’t even exist until relatively recently (the plastic in the drone, components of the batteries in both). That’s crazy and not normal. Up until the past few centuries, basically everything was made of sticks, rocks, and mud.*
* I’m speaking in generalities - stay out of my DMs
Absurd Thing #3
A group of girls made a brief appearance to take Instagram photos of each other at the edge of the lake. They showed up wearing full makeup with their hair done. They also wore workout gear which was hilarious because they immediately returned to their cars after taking the photos and clearly had no intentions of hiking. Their behavior was entirely motivated by a piece of software that thirteen people built and only became popular a few years ago.
Instagram allows us to manufacture a perception of our lives in order to garner the social approval of friends, family, people we grew up with, people we went to high school with but don’t talk to anymore, people we’ve only met once or twice, and complete strangers all over the planet.
Historically speaking, that’s pretty wild. Almost no previous humans spent hours each week crafting an image of themselves to broadcast to complete strangers or people they barely knew. Also, it would have been absurd 20 years ago to know exactly how a girl that was in my middle school geometry class that I haven’t spoken to since spent her weekend.
Absurd Thing #4
We had a wireless speaker that occasionally would play a song recorded years ago by somebody who is now dead. The speaker technology itself is impressive and new, but even stranger is the fact that for most of human history, listening to music required finding somebody nearby who was not dead to play some for you. Sound was ephemeral for the vast, vast majority of our history. It's now totally normal to have a dead guy sing you a song while you're hanging out in the mountains or cruising 30,000 feet above the Earth.
Today is weird and the signs are all around if you just look.
It’s hard to communicate effectively with other people. Each of us bring a set of assumptions and perspectives into each conversation and it’s highly unlikely that they’re always aligned.
There’s a clever exercise that one of the big consulting companies sends their new recruits through to illustrate the point. Small groups of new hires are given a can of Coke and asked to spend two minutes in silence writing down what they each see.
The results are borderline comedic; some new recruits write things like “can, red, soda” while others write “corporation, marketing, diabetes.”
The same can of Coke, radically different perspectives.
It’s not hard to see this phenomenon playing out in the real world. A manager, for example, thinks she’s talking to an employee about the company’s work-from-home policy, but the employee is in a conversation about their personal freedom and livelihood. Two very different cans of metaphorical Coke.
This exercise shines a light on all sorts of common communication pitfalls. Amongst them, I’m reminded of the old wisdom: “communication isn’t what you say, it’s how you’re heard.”
I used to think that studying history was valuable because a) it’s inherently useful to understand your origins and b) the past contains lessons that might help predict the future.
But the more I’ve learned about the past, the more it seems to be propelled by a whole bunch of random and super-arbitrary events. Far from being a reliable guide to the future, history often puts agency in our hands and allows us to imagine and create a tomorrow that’s largely unencumbered by what came before it.
Take the history of lawns, which Yuval Noah Harari’s recounts in Homo Deus:
A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it…
And I bet that history is super weird…
The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility…Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns.
So rich people invented lawns to flaunt their wealth? Kind of makes me less hot on lawns. Eventually:
…the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, [and] millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.
So the sprawling lawns of suburbia are part of a centuries-long game of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses where the Joneses are dead European aristocrats? Lawns now seem supremely weird.
Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard.
You are of course still free to do it but you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation.
“This is the best reason to learn history,” Yuval Noah Harari writes, “not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.”
I recently heard the story of Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer who got his big-ass sailboat Endurance stuck in a sheet of ice in Antarctica in the early 1900’s.
After his boat got stuck, Shackleton had assumed that he and his crew could wait for spring when the ice would melt and the boat would be freed up. Instead, the ice ended up crushing the entire ship and sending it to the bottom of the ocean.
So, for a year and a half, Shackleton and his crew were forced to camp on a floating sheet of ice and figure out how to get back to civilization.
All of the horrendous things you’d expect to happen in a situation like this happened: starvation, frostbite, killing and eating all of the animals they had on board (mostly dogs). They burned seal blubber for heat in an attempt to survive nights that dipped 92 degrees below zero.
Eventually, Shackleton and five of his men sailed 900 miles in a 20-foot lifeboat towards where they believed the nearest inhabited island was. After battling 20-foot seas for weeks, they found the island and hiked for three days to find the island's single whaling outpost.
Months later, they were able to return and rescue the crew they had left behind.
Today, a situation this bleak is hard to imagine. We've charted most of the world and are less likely to be taken by surprise by environmental conditions. We can manufacture boats capable of powering through the ice. Our communication networks are far more pervasive and redundant.
We've learned from centuries of trial and error and have incorporated those lessons into our tools and our common sense, making us far safer and far more capable than any time in history.
Those of us alive today are the lucky recipients of a world where a nightmare like Shackleton's seems like just that: a bad dream.