Software & Hardware as an analogy for human systems
At a higher level, I’m just generally fascinated by humans and how we live our lives. In a lot of ways I see humans as a bunch of dinosaurs whose world has grown up way faster than our ancient DNA can keep up with. For the most part, this works out ok but it seems like every advancement in humanity has a little wrinkle that tends to get exploited in some way. For example, much of the world has a stable, accessible food supply but our bodies weren’t built for a stable food supply so this advancement can lead to obesity if we don’t pay attention to the way our bodies were built. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and a prolific investor, characterizes his investment philosophy as such, “I want to invest in companies that play to one or more of the seven deadly sins”. Like many people in technology world, he realizes the power of this lower-level human characteristics. We can change our software, the way we think, through education but (at least with current technology) we can’t change our hardware, the way our brain reacts to stimulus on a subconscious level. This is a fundamental belief that shapes a lot of my thinking and has guided the way I have explored the world.
I think people generally overestimate the rigidity of our thinking and underestimate the rigidity of our subconscious and biology but I think we can be better prepared to live in this strange world. I’ve tried to embrace these realities.
First the software, the way we think. When I was growing up, I took the world at face value. I went to high school and college because that’s what my parents expected of me and that’s what “people do”. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy school–in fact I absolutely loved most of it but the rigidity of the path I was on was something I never tested nor even acknowledged. However, once I graduated that pre-determined path seemed to fall away abruptly for me. From what I can gather from some friends, that path has continued for them long past college, in medical school and beyond. Left without a defined path I felt like I was in a vacuum and expanded in every direction at once. It turned out I had a lot of assumptions about the world that lead me into places I don’t actually enjoy but I had some experiences which further shook the notion that there is something I should be doing.
Living situation as an easily malleable “software”
To make this more concrete, one of the ways I’ve experimented with this path is my physical living conditions, the roof (or lack there of) over my head. Shortly after college, I moved from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes, CA–3 million people to 8 thousand. I lived with one of my friends and my girlfriend. I left behind a lot of the people I loved in LA and a lot routines. Instead of sitting on the porch in front of my house in LA, I would go ski for a couple hours in the morning. This change, shook my conception of what routines I wanted or needed to have. Getting to ski and be in the mountains in that capacity, scratched an itch I didn’t really know I had, it touched something at the “hardware” level–I felt a new connection with my body and with nature that has since fascinated me. At the same time, I also felt loss because I was missing my people and my community I left behind. I might not have realized it in the moment but I needed nature and I needed “my people”. The next jump in living came through a Ford F-250, a cab-over camper and a 3 thousand mile drive from Mexico to Alaska. I learned a lot in Alaska and it deserves its own account but if nothing else, it doubled down on what I had experienced in Mammoth much more forcefully–I was in some unreal nature and extremely far away from my friends.
Alaska was difficult for many reasons but there were glimpses into a different way of living that have again shifted my perspective on what’s possible and what my path should look like. Some of my favorite memories were made cooking in campfire embers surrounded by random assortment of travelers and natives who seemed to always descend on this one beach at the same time. There was magic in these random gatherings–the way people treated each other, the way the welcomed us in without cause, the shared vision of what spending a good night on the beach meant. This is something I’ve continued to chase after, having fallen in love with that environment.
The flexibility of what “I should do x” can mean has continued to expand as I venture further into the world. The path my parents put me on served me so well but it’s really just one program or routine to follow and can be changed instantly if you want to change it.
The other half of a system that runs “software” is the hardware. I’d define this as everything that is really hard to change without extreme intervention. I will most likely be 5’ 7” for the rest of my life–no thinking my way out of that one. :P Simple expressions of our genes that present as visual traits are super easy to understand and easily accepted as rather immutable. But for some reason, it seems like a lot of people believe you can change the way your body processes nutrients, ignore your body’s need for activity or psychological safety.
Eating habits as a hard to change “hardware”
I’ve seen the immutable qualities of my body manifest in many different ways but exercise and nutrition is a really good example. I’ve always been “active”–I played sports in high school and have chased after a bunch of action sports after school like mountain biking and skiing but until recently I have carried around extra 20-25 lbs. The topic of weight is something that goes way beyond this discussion but it’s something that I’ve wanted to change about myself for a long time but I had never been able to. Those reward I get from eating food, all the habits I’ve had to carefully deconstruction and the huge reliance I had to put on routine to bail out my lack of willpower have made me intimately aware with how hard it is to change things that are embedded in our subconscious. It’s both immensely powerful and incredibly daunting to build habits and make those unchanging constructs work for us rather than against us.
For me food is a huge source of comfort and some days I will come home wanting nothing more than to lay in bed and eat some variety of processed, caloricly dense garbage and watch YouTube or Netflix. I would bet that’s an experience shared by many people and with any urge or habit, it’s happening at a lower level than your conscious brain. It turns out that its really hard to change those habits and takes a lot of effort. I have tried to acknowledge that difficultly not to discourage myself but to give myself permission to fail, to acknowledge how powerful routine and subconscious is and to try and use it to my advantage.
Overall, understanding the true characteristics of a system and making peace with the parts that my be inconvenient is the only way to overcome them. I’m definitely not the first person to write about this but it’s been something impactful and my life recently and felt worth sharing.
If any of this seemed interesting, these books go way more in depth and are worth checking out.