Life Is Full of Cosmic Jokes Cover

Life Is Full of Cosmic Jokes

Someone once asked Neil deGrasse Tyson what the most fascinating thing about the universe was. As if having prepared for the question his entire life, he launched into a full-blown speech:

“The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy ions in their core. Under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems. Stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself.”

Wow. That’s quite the image to hold in your head. And how impressive the cocktail of life just one planet, our planet, has mixed from these ingredients:

And while we, the species of humans, have come out on the very top of this tree, we’re still just a branch. A tiny splinter of the universe. The genetic difference between the smartest monkeys, chimps, and humans is 1.2%. That’s why they and our toddlers still share many behaviors. So when asked about the possibility of alien existence, Tyson imagines the same gap:

“If aliens came and they had only that much more intelligence than us — the gap that is between us and chimps, and we have DNA in common — if they were only that, they could enslave the entire earth and we wouldn’t even know it. Maybe that has already happened. And we are living our lives as though we are expressing the free will of the human species, yet we are nothing more than an ant farm. On their shelf. So we are their entertainment. Not even worthy of investigation beyond what we look like in their terrarium.”

It’s funny, isn’t it? This contradiction. We are the pinnacle of evolution, and yet, we know next to nothing about the context we’ve been dropped into.

I may not wear a lab coat at work, but I’m a little bit of a scientist myself. Every day, I try to parse a small fragment of that context and make sense of life. Through writing, especially over the past year, I’ve discovered there are many ways this grand, cosmic contradiction is baked into life itself.

Here are 12 of the biggest jokes the universe plays on us.

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The Road Not Taken Analysis Cover

Why Is “The Road Not Taken” One of the Most Famous Poems of All Time?

I’m sure you recognize this fragment:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s from The Road Not Taken, written by Robert Frost in 1916, one of the most popular poems of all time. People read, talk about, and teach it in schools all around the world to this day. But in order to survive for over 100 years, the poem couldn’t just be popular.

It also needed enemies.

A Pitting Competition

There’s a saying that the best art divides the audience. Sure enough, much like the two roads in the woods, Frost’s poem offers vastly diverging interpretations of life.

One is that you should always take the less traveled path, make your own choices, and be an independent thinker. The other is that even trying to do so is nonsense. Maybe the narrator sighs not because he’s content to take an untrodden path, but because he regrets he can take only one, when, in reality, the choice doesn’t matter and both end up in the same place.

Whether it was a planned move on Frost’s end or just one of the many accidental fires started by humanity, the ambiguity was brilliant. The poem created two completely opposite camps, the freedom fighters and the nihilists, and pitted them against one another.

But there’s even more to the story.

Life in Three Words

Throughout his career, Frost received 40 honorary degrees, 31 Nobel Prize nominations, 4 Pulitzer Prizes and the Congressional Gold Medal. Clearly, the man had a lot to say. This clever line is now one of the most popular quotes on Goodreads:

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

— Robert Frost

Again, readers are forced to self-select into two camps: those, who feel some sense of relief and take it as a case for optimism, and those, who are turned off by this bland way of looking at the world.

But there’s something beyond that: It’s impossible to argue with this statement. It’s true. Period. With or without you, life goes on. Think about it. It’s all there. The short highs of your success. The long troughs of failure. The laughs and cries, love and grief, people and the weather. Even death. Its inevitability. Our helplessness in the face of the insignificance of our own existence.

It’s so depressing, so surrendering, that one can’t help but admire it. It’s beautiful. Or, you can react with rage and hate it to the core. Like author Michael Lewis once overheard in random conversation in a bar, somewhere in Washington, D.C.:

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

There’s nothing more divisive than the truth.

Finding the Kernel

There are many ways to make points that ring like truths that are hard to debate. Like stating an actual fact, as in the quote. Or picking an everyday situation literally everyone can relate to, like the poem — we’ve all had to choose between two options before. You could also be vague, obscure, or posit something absurd, or unverifiable.

But no matter how small or how hard to find, it’s this kernel of universal truth that makes Frost’s poems great art. Here’s the thing, though: There are two camps of everything. More, even. Five, twenty, ten thousand. And truth splits them all, right down the middle. This phenomenon extends not just beyond poetry to all art, but to all of life. Politics, family, relationships, business, school, work, health, you name it, whoever vows the world with the most elemental, poignant insight will take center stage.

And that’s why creating, succeeding — sometimes just living — is hard. Because the world pushes you to deliver your most honest, vulnerable self. All the time. Maybe that’s why people hate poetry. You have to stare at it all, the beauty and the trauma, until you can see through it. But looking is too painful, too overwhelming, or too difficult, so most people turn their eyes away too early.

And then they quote the people who didn’t.

A Lesson About Art To Remember

Besides the fact that art is hard, there’s another big lesson here. No matter how hard they worked to share it, the best art is never about the artist.

The best art is always about you.

It’s you and your version of the truth that make art, business, and life, really, things worth talking about, worth debating, worth fighting for. That’s the kicker, I think. Without you, it’d all amount to nothing. Like that fork in the woods, before whoever stands there chooses a road.

Even if you’re not an artist, you’re part of it all. You split the audience too. You’re a great work of art. And we really need you here. So remember, no matter how many people hate you, or love you, or just don’t care: Life goes on.

How To Thoroughly Screw Up Your Life Cover

How To Thoroughly Screw Up Your Life

When I was 9, we were at a lake. There were ducks walking around.

I fed some of them and more and more ducks flocked towards me. It was a blast.

Eventually, however, they backed me into a corner, right up against a tree. I fell over.

Needless to say, I was angry at the ducks. I had scraped my elbow.

I now realize I should have been angry at myself. Because this story is a metaphor. A recipe for disaster. Whenever it plays out in life, it works to a tee. And it’s not just me.

Life Is Full of Ducks

  • When you’re 6, put down your imaginary Superman cape, because otherwise, you’ll never be a big boy.
  • When you’re 10, get a pair of Jordan’s, because otherwise, you won’t be cool.
  • When you’re 15, ditch your best friend for the hot guy, because otherwise, you’ll never make prom queen.
  • When you’re 18, make it into a good school, because otherwise, you’ll be a black sheep.
  • When you’re 21, stay close to home, because otherwise, you’ll lose your friends.
  • When you’re 25, pick the stable job, because otherwise, you’ll never be able to start a family.
  • When you’re 29, get married fast, because otherwise, you’ll be too old.

Choosing to Choose

There’s only one thing these ducks are pushing you towards: Making the big choices in life on a whim and spending the rest of it obsessing over trivialities. If you let it, life will back you into a corner you can’t get out of. Until you fall over. That’s what happens when you keep feeding the ducks.

The more things you do because of what you’ll be if you don’t, the less you’ll like who you are when it’s too late.

You might check all of society’s boxes, but none of your own. You’ll only scrape your elbow. To quote John Lennon:

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

There’s more to it, though. Life is what remains after your choices, but there’ll be very little left if you don’t choose at all.

A Letter to Rational People Cover

A Letter to Rational People

Hercule Poirot stands on the balcony, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Atop the clock tower in Jaffa, Israel, the greatest detective in the world stares into the distance. It is 1934.

Still baffled by how the Belgian gentleman with the big mustache solved the case of the missing relic, the captain of the police can’t help himself but stare.

“It’s just…how did you know it was him, sir? From just a tiny crack on the wall.”

“I have the advantage…I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, the imperfection stands out like the nose in the middle of a face. It…it makes most of life unbearable. But it is useful in the detection of crime.”

There are a lot of Hercule Poirots here on the web. Wonderful, rational people. It’s one of the reasons why I love this place. We may not all be detectives by profession, but we’re just as curious, just as righteous, just as skeptical of everything that, in a balanced world, shouldn’t be.

It’s why we read and write about justice, about equality, about fairness. About getting along, living better, and being kind. But sometimes we come up short.

This is a letter to everyone facing those times. A letter to rational people.

Nothing In-Between

The captain isn’t quite satisfied. Yes, Poirot can see the world plainly, but there is something more. Something beyond facts. “But it’s as though you see into their hearts and divine their true natures,” he says. To which Poirot replies:

“And whatever people say, there is right, there is wrong. There is nothing in-between.”

At first I was confused at Poirot’s statement. Doesn’t he know the truth is subjective? Isn’t that what makes him a great detective? Then I realized, it is knowing that this dichotomy exists despite the truth being subjective that does. We all have our own version of reality, but in each one, the distinction between right and wrong persists. Always. And, in a surprisingly large number of situations, a surprisingly large number of people agree.

As we become more rational, whether that’s through training, brute force, or education, the choice between wrong and right hovers more and more clearly over our head. And every day, we fight to do our best. But it’s hard. We don’t always choose what’s right, we’re only human after all. But the more we know what’s right, the more it weighs on us. That burden can be a lot to carry.

Breakpoint

The train pulls into the small town of Brod, Bosnia. Only days have passed, but they feel like years. The case he’s solved on board brought him to the edge of both his morals and abilities. Before he disembarks, Poirot writes a letter of his own. A letter to an old friend, that he only sends in his mind.

“My dear Colonel Armstrong,

finally I can answer your letter. At least with the thoughts in my head and the feeling in my heart that somewhere, you can hear me.

I have now discovered the truth of the case and it is profoundly disturbing. I have seen the fracture of the human soul. So many broken lives, so much pain and anger, giving way to the poison of deep grief, until one crime became many.”

When we grow past the mercy of our emotions, beyond holding ourselves accountable, we suddenly see the injustice all around us. Life’s not fair. Children die. Criminals succeed.

It’s not just depressing. It’s tempting. We’ve all made the wrong choice at the right time and gotten off easy. But there is a breakpoint to how much we can tolerate. It may not break you, but at least once in life, it is everyone’s turn.

I don’t know if it’s your turn yet, but I want you to know you’re not alone.

Even the greatest detective in the world has his struggles.

What Rationality Is Built Upon

As Poirot grapples with the abyss he’s staring into, he feels trapped in the middle. A prison halfway between wrong and right. This time, however, the key lies not within the depths of the human mind.

“I have always wanted to believe that man is rational and civilized. My very existence depends upon this hope, upon order and method and the little grey cells. But now, perhaps, I am asked to listen, instead, to my heart.”

What unites us in our fight for rationality is not our ability to see the world clearly. It is neither intelligence nor discipline; not even a shared lack of understanding for those, who act on impulse. We all set out on this journey together because we built our lives around this same, undying hope. That underneath it all, in spite of everything, man is still good. And sometimes, that hope must be enough.

If you’ve recently failed to do the right thing, whether you’ve known it before or found out after: rest easy. When others have failed to do right by you, rest easy. And give them space to rest easy too. Even the man who dedicated his whole life to finding the truth comes to see that sometimes, peace lies in that paralyzing fog between our choices. Or worse, on the wrong side. But from time to time, finding it may be more important than being right.

“I have understood in this case that the scales of justice cannot always be evenly weighed. And I must learn, for once, to live with the imbalance.”

You won’t always get what you deserve. You won’t always live a happy life. In fact, it will often be unbearable. But in spite of the imbalance, you will always find the strength to go on.

And to me, no matter where life sends us, going on is always the truth.

The Wonderful Thing About Broken Promises Cover

The Wonderful Thing About Broken Promises

One of the most important things to remember about other people is this:

They won’t.

Your school teacher says she’ll take the class for ice cream. But she won’t.

The store clerk says he’ll gladly refund you if the shoes don’t fit. But he won’t.

Your old acquaintance says she’ll text you when she’s in town. But she won’t.

The guy handing out loans says he’ll see what he can do for you. But he won’t.

Your classmate says she’ll send you her essay when she’s done. But she won’t.

The professor says he’ll only use class material for the exam. But he won’t.

Your waitress says she’ll be right back with your drink. But she won’t.

Your date says they’ll call you. But they won’t.


One way of looking at this is that it’s just sad. The fact that humans don’t value their own word must be one of the biggest reasons the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I, too, wish we could all grow up without losing that spark of hope in our six-year-old eyes and never be disappointed. But we can’t.

What we can do is change our perspective to at least try and turn this weight into a stepping stone. So here’s another point of view: Every broken promise is a chance to be compassionate.

An opportunity to think “I hope he’s alright” instead of “he’s dead to me.” A shot at considering they, too, might’ve been given nothing but broken promises all their life. A wonderful excuse to reduce your expectations of flawed humans in a world we all struggle with.

Practicing this is hard. But compassion is the right answer. How do I know?

Well, here’s another change of perspective: You are other people’s ‘other people.’ To them, you’re the one who ‘won’t.’

We all fail to follow through sometimes. No one’s perfect. But my guess is you, like most of us, don’t make promises and break them on purpose. Do you?

People are good at heart. It’s how we’ve come to be so many in the first place. We do look out for one another. That horrible picture of human nature the news continue to paint was never accurate. Still isn’t. If it had been at any point, we’d long be extinct. Therefore, the odds of being in the wrong when you forgive others are so low, it’s not even a risk worth taking.

When you give others the benefit of the doubt, you can also more easily extend this graciousness to yourself. Because whenever you break a promise, that’s also an opportunity: one to show yourself compassion. Maybe, you needn’t shoulder all that much. Maybe, you don’t have to make so many commitments. To live up to all these self-created obligations.

Promises are hope manufactured by humans. And we tend to oversupply.

Let’s switch perspectives one last time: Life doesn’t make any promises. We’re all born with high hopes, but none of them were ever advertised to us as guaranteed to come true. None of them. To no one.

In the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient, spiritual text of Hinduism, Prince Arjuna is led into battle by his guide and charioteer Lord Krishna. There are many interpretations of it, but Arjuna likely stands for humanity, while Krishna represents a higher power. The battlefield reflects the many struggles of life.

At one point, Krishna tells Arjuna we have “the right to our labor, but not its fruits.” You can take this literally, of course. Love the process, but don’t get attached to the outcome. Given the broader context of the scripture, however, I think it’s worth projecting:

The only reward we get out of life is being alive itself.

This includes beautiful, sunny days, on which you’ll eat way too much ice cream and fall asleep in your dream partner’s arms, as much as it includes the days you break down crying in the subway, because you’re broke, desperate, and that partner just left you. Gratitude for being able to experience both is the one gift that keeps on giving.

But it’s a gift we must learn to keep receiving and that itself takes a lifetime. Our own failure to accept this that we’re truly disappointed with when others don’t keep their word with us. Not that our friends were five minutes late. It is out of this universal disappointment that individual anger arises, which we throw at whoever happens to feel like a close, appropriate target at the time.

No, people won’t always keep their promises. And you won’t either. But if you can remember that it’s neither what we do nor what we say, but the time we spend here together that makes life worth living, even broken words will weave the fabric of the experience.

Imagination Is the God of Change Cover

Imagination Is the God of Change

Cobb puts his sunglasses into his jacket’s inner pocket.

“So, Arthur keeps telling me it can’t be done.”

Eames can’t hide a smile, playing with the peanuts in his hands.

“Hmmm, Arthur…You still work with that stick-in-the-mud?”

“He’s good at what he does, right?”

“Oh, he’s the best. He has no imagination.”

“Not like you.”

“Listen, if you’re gonna perform inception you need imagination.”


Who’s Cobb? What’s with the sunglasses? Who’s Arthur? And Eames? Why is he eating peanuts? And what the hell is inception?

Even if you recognize the fragment above, you don’t have complete answers to these questions. Except you do. Because whatever inception is, if it requires imagination, it means you need ideas. Creativity. Curiosity, and, of course, the will to believe a new version of the truth. You have all those things. And you can use them to fill in the gaps.

Inception is a task of the mind. And how you use it makes all the difference.

The Cradle of Change

Imagine you walk down the street and see someone with an extremely fit body. You think to yourself: “I should work out. I would get abs like that.” Or you support a friend running a marathon and wonder: “Maybe I can run that far.” You read a good book and before you know it, a daring thought floats to the surface of your attention: “I could be a writer too.

That’s inception. The cradle of change. But the message of Christopher Nolan’s hit movie is bigger than that. It’s not just “a single thought can change the world.” It’s also “a single thought can destroy a life.”


Cobb loads the gun. He and his protégé get off the the elevator.

“Listen, there’s something you should know about me. About inception. An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”

They enter the living room. Cobb’s wife sits at the table. With her back towards the duo, she finishes his speech:

“The smallest idea such as: ‘Your world is not real.’ Simple little thought that changes everything.”

Two Kinds of Seeds

Imagination is humanity’s best trait. It is also the most dangerous. It gives as much as it takes away. That’s why the seeds of imagination are always planted in pairs. The first thought is brilliant. Shiny. Crystal clear. A ray of divine creation. The one that immediately follows is dark. Malevolent. A destructive force that casts a veil of despair.

The name of that second thought is Resistance. It’s the voice that says you needn’t work out. Or that you’ll never get abs, no matter how hard you try. “Run a marathon? You? That’s even less likely than you becoming a writer.”

In The War of Art, the man who named Resistance, Steven Pressfield, writes:

“Resistance will bury you. You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

Resistance’s initial reaction is always brute force. Change feels dangerous. Even the thought of it provokes a hard “no” from your brain. It wants you to stay the same. What you’ve done so far has gotten you to this day. It’ll get you to another one, won’t it? Your brain says yes, but in truth no one can tell.

Resistance is cunning, however. Once it sees you’ve made up your mind, it won’t keep trying to dissuade you. It throws a curve ball instead.


Cobb sips on his beer. He puts it down and looks at Eames.

“Let me ask you something.”

He pauses.

“Have you done it before?”

Eames raises his eyebrows.

“We tried it. We got the idea in place. But it didn’t take.”

“You didn’t plant it deep enough?”

“No, it’s not just about depth. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject’s mind. It’s a very subtle art.”

Source

A Fool’s Errand

Once you’ve had an idea, you’re only one step away from execution. But your brain knows that. The peril of change is imminent. Enter artificial complexity.

“Go for it. But how are you going to do that?”

Your mind counters inception with deception. “What’s your plan?” It’s a trick question, designed solely to throw you off your game. It ensures no work will be done today, because suddenly, you’re busy collecting maps.

Here are some of the headlines from my Medium home page:

  • The One Routine Common to Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers
  • The 4 Pillars of Extraordinary Bliss
  • The Strange Productivity Secret of Successful People
  • How Do You Build A Business Around Doing What You Love? Here’s The Answer
  • 7 Things You Should Stop Doing NOW if You Want to be a Writer

That’s a fraction of the how-to plans we come across in a single day. Infinite wisdom awaits online; knowledge is democratized. A lot of people share a lot of great advice. Gym routines, reading tips, running guides, it’s all there. I know those lists. I make them myself from time to time. Some of them sometimes work. But you don’t need them.

Your brain sending you to find plans is a distraction. A fool’s errand. But the web is happy to comply. It’s one of the problems Ev is trying to address:

“The internet is amazingly well tuned to give you what you “want” — whether you want it or not. If you can’t look away from a car crash, it will surmise you want more car crashes and will create them for you. If you can’t stop eating junk food, it will serve you up a platter.”

The simplest version of the idea is more than enough for it to grow. If you want to be a dancer, all you need to do is dance. To lose weight, eat less, move more. For a design career, begin designing. Take the seed and water it. Let it unfold. In your mind. In your life. But that’s not how it works.


As they ride down the elevator, Cobb reveals to his mentee:

“I knew something was wrong with her. She just wouldn’t admit it. Eventually, she told me the truth. She was possessed by an idea. This one, very simple idea that changed everything. That our world wasn’t real. That she needed to wake up to come back to reality. That, in order to get back home, we had to kill ourselves.”

The Terror of Maplessness

The reason other people’s recipes are so tempting, not just to look at, but even to try and follow, is that they’re a perfect excuse to not really have to change. Seth Godin spells it out in Linchpin:

“Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do. The reasons are pretty obvious: If it’s someone else’s map, it’s not your fault if it doesn’t work out. If you’ve memorized the sales script I gave you and you don’t make the sale, who’s in trouble now? Not only does the map insulate us from responsibility, but it’s also a social talisman. We can tell our friends and family that we’ve found a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect.”

As well-intended as the world’s suggestions might be, all you end up with if you readily take them is someone else’s point of view. That’s not what you want. That’s not real change. It only ends in frustration and blame.

That’s not what we want either. We want your point of view. We desperately need it. What do you want? What do you feel? What do you think? You know your flaws. Your strengths. You have ideas. What do you need a map for?


Cobb sits down at the table, next to his wife. But it’s all in his head. He’s talking to himself. A projection of her, to which he can finally confess.

“The idea that caused you to question your reality came from me.”

He turns back to his student.

“She had locked something away, something deep inside. A truth that she had once known, but chose to forget. She couldn’t break free. So I decided to search for it. I went deep into the recess of her mind and found that secret place. And I broke in and I planted an idea. A simple little idea that would change everything. That her world wasn’t real.”

The memory of Cobb’s wife looks down. She realizes.

“That death was the only escape.”

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

Waiting For a Train

There is only one answer to your mind’s devious questions: silence. When it prompts you to research, to make plans, to go out and find a map, stop.

  • Stop reading Medium, Business Insider, Wikipedia, even stop reading books. Don’t read anything for a while.
  • Stop watching Youtube videos, TED talks, TV, movies, anything at all.
  • Screw what people say. Your best friend, your cousin, the hot guy or gal at work, your professor, your boss, even your parents. Especially your parents.
  • Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do if none of the above sources had told you to. Show up at work, do your job, but outside of that, don’t let anyone sell you on what you “have to do.”

If you can’t live without a map, you might one day pay the price.


Cobb opens the door. The hotel room is trashed. The window open. As he peers through the blowing curtain, he sees his wife, sitting on the sill of the opposite building.

“Sweetheart, what are you doing?”

“Join me.”

“Just step back inside, alright? Just step back inside now, come on.”

“No. I’m going to jump and you’re coming with me.”

She forces him out onto the ledge, then closes her eyes.

“You’re waiting for a train.”

“Mal, goddamn it! Don’t do this!”

“A train that will take you far away.”

“James and Phillipa are waiting for you!”

“You know where you hope this train will take you.”

“They’re waiting for us!”

“But you can’t know for sure.”

“Mal, look at me!”

“But it doesn’t matter.”

“Mal, goddamn it!”

Her hands leave the ledge.

“Because you’ll be together.”

She jumps.

The Power of Imagination

Cobb got so lost in the plan that he drove his wife insane. He gave her an idea she was too afraid to let go, so he couldn’t stop her from jumping off the ledge. But you can. Because you’re not battling someone else’s insanity. You’re fighting against your own mind. Don’t let Resistance win. Hold on to that first thought. Protect your simple ideas. You owe it to yourself. And to all of us.

Life has always pushed us not to think, but since the internet it’s a lot worse. It’s a made up place and it consists of nothing but opinions. Dare to close your laptop. To throw your smartphone out the window. Or turn it off. Don’t allow these devices to plant rogue ideas. Stop.

Stop looking for maps. For things to blame. Think for yourself. A lot can happen in six months. You wouldn’t be rich, successful, super smart or more popular. But you’d be you.

Maybe that’s the real task of the mind. Maybe that’s inception.