Abundance and addiction. Choice and recovery. Learning and belonging. This post is inspired by wise words from Naval Ravikant’s conversation with Scott Adams, and from my friends Bryan Wempen and Heather Bussing.
“The real universal basic income is cannabis and video games.” This is Naval Ravikant’s* knowingly mischievous updating of Juvenal’s prescription of “bread and circuses” to placate and pacify the masses of ancient Rome. Naval speaks these words in his fascinating February 2019 Periscope conversation with Dilbert creator Scott Adams.**
Abundance and addiction
When it comes to bread and circuses, these days we are spoilt for choice. The modern world offers us an abundance of distractions, vices and opportunities for self-indulgence. These can so easily can tip over into self-destructive excess, into addiction. Naval argues that for those in the first world, a central challenge of modern life is how to navigate the sheer number of temptations.
“We’re not meant to consume infinite news, infinite porn, infinite food. We live in an era of too much abundance. This is the modern struggle. There is so much of an abundance of cheap, fake, instant dopamine and meaning. How do you motivate yourself to do the real thing any more?”
Addiction is the inevitable outcome of this age of abundance for too many people. Naval believes that ongoing abundance*** will mean that addiction levels skyrocket in the coming years:
“The next generation is going to have to learn how to conquer a greater set of addictions. All the problems of olden times were scarcity. Now they’re all abundance. I have too much of this, I have too much of that. How do I stop eating? How do I stop playing video games? How do I stop drinking alcohol? How do I stop smoking weed? How do I stop going on social media? At least in the first-world society, success and failure in the future – and even today – is much more about how you control and manage and break addictions than even going out and doing something.”
How do I stop?
“How do I stop?” This is a key question for so many people in the modern world.
I take huge inspiration from my friends Bryan Wempen and Heather Bussing. Each faced up to and dealt with their own alcohol and drug addiction. Each reached a point at which they chose to break the cycles of addiction and to reclaim and rebuild their lives. These are two of the bravest, most beautiful souls that it is my privilege to know.
In his first book**** Note to Self Bryan writes of how he became an addict:
“My world was about me being not comfortable with most anything, or myself, so I chased ways to change how I felt. Over the years, self-medicating with alcohol and food and working all the time were my way to deal with the chaos.”
In an online audio conversation with William Tincup, Heather says that her addiction issues were driven in part by anxiety about her place in the world and about where and how she might fit in with society. Addiction offered Heather a way out:
“What I was chasing was oblivion. If I started drinking, I wouldn’t stop until I passed out. I just couldn’t.”
Willingness, discovery and healing
What happens when you make the conscious choice to stop? A new life of humility, discovery and beauty can open up.
“Recovery is about willingness, discovery, and healing.” So says Bryan on his website. In Note to Self, Bryan writes with a lovely, simple clarity about how his life began anew when he made the decision to stop:
“I stopped drinking on 9 May 2010 and realised something was terribly wrong with my life and something had to change. This was my starting point, my willingness where I was asking for help, going to any lengths to change my life. Since that point, I consistently ask for help and guidance and have gained knowledge and experience that helps keep me sane, sober and serving a greater purpose.”
Heather says that she decided to stop when she got “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” Like Bryan, Heather believes that recovery is an unending learning process:
“It turned out that under the crazy and under all the trying to be who everyone wanted me to be, it was much easier to be myself. Because I was actually qualified to do that. But it’s a slow burn, because it’s a slow process, when you’ve spent your whole life taking cues from outside of you on who you should be, what you should say and how you should live. It’s a learning process. I’m still learning who I am and how to be brave and just be myself.”
In his conversation with Scott Adams, Naval Ravikant says that the profound unhappiness that leads some people to addiction can arise when our own desires clash with what our abundant society wants from us:
“Human nature is all about evolution. I think where we get trapped, where we get screwed up, is where we’re trying to solve society’s demands, which is other monkeys, with our own demands, which is biological programming. A lot of what creates unhappiness in modern society is a struggle between what society wants and what the individual wants.”
We can choose to turn our backs on this unhappiness (though I entirely appreciate that these words are easier to write than to live by).
At one point in their conversation, Scott asks Naval what he considers to be the definition of freedom. Naval responds that choice is a central pillar of our freedom:
“There’s the freedom to make your choices in life, to live the life that you want, to self-actualise.”
Addiction doesn’t have to be the outcome of this age of abundance. Addiction can be fought. There is always a choice.
“How do I stop?” For both Bryan and Heather, their response to this question was to make a conscious choice to start their lives over. To embark on their own individual path of recovery and of learning. To motivate themselves to do the real thing.
I love Heather’s words on the main lesson that she has learnt from her path of recovery so far:
“There is only one requirement to belong on the earth, and that’s to be here. If you’re here, you’re good enough. If you’re here, you belong. If you’re here, you’re in. And the rest is just all of the things that we do to ourselves and each other to try to make us feel like we belong. Everybody here belongs. We’re here.”
Everybody here belongs.
UPDATE (25 December 2019): Inspire and be inspired
As I write it is Christmas Day, and I have just received the most beautiful little tweeted gift. Responding to this post, Gem Dale shared a link to a video of a lovely poem by Lemn Sissay. Paying tribute to the University of Manchester and all that it has done for him, Sissay says:
“We who have walked the world in the name of here and where we came from stand in this great city and say: I belong here, I belong.
“I bring my past, I bring my future, I bring my rights and I bring my song.”
Thank you for so generously sharing these words, Gem. I highly recommend that everyone listen in full to this brief poem from Mr Sissay. It will enrich your day (Christmas Day or otherwise).
Here is the direct link to this wonderful video on YouTube:
* I recommend listening closely and repeatedly to Naval’s chat with Scott Adams. I also urge you to immerse yourself in his fantastic chat with Tim Ferriss, which I recently highlighted in my list of my top 5 podcasts of 2018.
*** Abundance may of course prove not to be such an issue in the UK in the near future, depending on how Brexit ultimately shakes itself out. Wired published a good piece on this topic recently: What the KFC chicken crisis tells us about Brexit food shortages.
**** Bryan’s second book is out in May 2019. Entitled Sober: A Note to Self.
- Scott Adams – How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.
- Scott Adams – Win Bigly.
- Tim Ferriss – Tools of Titans.
- Tim Ferriss – Tribe of Mentors.
- Bryan Wempen – Note to Self.