What If Our Addictions Are What Makes Us Successful? Cover

What If Our Addictions Are What Makes Us Successful?

I have a theory:

Everyone’s addicted to something.

Not addiction in the clinical sense. I’m not talking about a chemical imbalance that might lead to substance abuse. That should be treated professionally.

When I say ‘addicted,’ I mean that you do something just a little more than you probably should. And even though sometimes that “just a little” isn’t all that little anymore, if you had a shrink, he wouldn’t recommend sending you to Shutter Island just yet.

Here’s an example: When I was 15, I was addicted to soccer tricks.

I would watch all the Nike commercials and try to copy the moves those guys had. For about three years, I spent three, four, sometimes eight hours a day outside or in our basement and practice. I found a community online and we had competitions. We filmed videos. And in Germany, we were the first few dozen people to kickstart this movement.

Always practicing.

Sadly, my knees are f*cked. Always have been, really. But putting constant pressure on my legs and jumping up and down on the tarmac didn’t help. So in 2008, I made a final video, then quit. I wasn’t forced to. It was a decision.

Here’s another example: When I was 18, I was addicted to video games.

I’ve been a gamer since I was 8. That’s when my parents gave me a Nintendo 64. I’ve played everything from Super Mario to Final Fantasy, from Pokémon to Call of Duty, from Warcraft to Blobby Volley. From 16 to 18, I spent my nights playing Counter-Strike on modded servers, trading items in Diablo 2, and kicking alien-ass in Halo sessions with friends.

But when I was 18, I really hit my stride. I bought an Xbox 360 and started chasing GamerScore. Every game had a maximum of 1,000 points you could score for achieving various things. Usually, that meant beating the story on all difficulty levels, completing side quests, pulling off certain stunts, kills, etc.

It’s the perfect system. On top of the flow experience you get from each individual game, you now have an incentive to play as many games as possible. What more, it allows for optimization, because you can focus on the 20% of tasks that give you 80% of the points, then move on. Sometimes, I would get 2–3 games from the video store on Friday, beat them all over the weekend, then return them Monday and pay 3–5 € per game. It was fun.

There was only one other guy in our city who did it as “professionally” as I did. I never caught up to him, but I was at 24,500 GamerScore before I quit. After my first semester at college, I realized it wasn’t a priority, so I sold my Xbox and that was that.

Do these things officially qualify as addiction? I don’t know. But in hindsight, I can tell you that’s exactly what they were. Because that’s what they felt like. They weren’t bad, crippling addictions. I enjoyed them. I was happy. But addictions nonetheless. From the outside, however, most people would have called them hobbies. Some might have called them excessive. But the one thing every person would have told you is that I was good at these things.

I was successful.

I have another theory:

All worldly success follows from channeling our addictions.

Let’s take your hypothetical friend John. John is the Fonz in your college class. He has the face of an angel and the tongue of a stand-up comedian. His hair falls in waves when he hops into his Camaro convertible and drives off. As a result, he always has two girls on every arm and a whole lot more chasing him. He gets more Tinder matches in a day than you get in three months.

As you would expect, John is constantly “going steady” with someone else. And when something does turn real, he disappears into his new relationship for a few months, only to emerge again at the fall term frat party with an empty passenger seat. In short: John’s got game out the wazoo.

To the outside world, John is successful. Men think he’s a hero, women desire him. Inside, however, John might be completely happy, completely miserable, or one or the other, depending on the time of day. We can’t know.

But even just looking from afar, if you strip away our various, often crooked definitions of success, you can see that John is simply addicted to love. Every aspect of it. No matter how much of this addiction is enabled through luck vs. conscious effort, it’s the lens he chooses to live his life through.

That’s not to say we can’t have multiple lenses. You can be a little addicted to love, a little to food, and a little to video games. As a result, you might be in a stable relationship, only slightly overweight, and halfway decent at Call of Duty. But it’s not as “productive,” to use the word in a perverted sense, as an all-out addiction to only one of the three.

Whatever messed up standard the world has to measure how successful you are at something, if you’re addicted to it, you’ll do just fine. The problem is that the world seems to have twisted standards for everything.

But is that really a problem, then?

I have one last theory: it’s all meant to be this way.

Addictions are the clips the universe puts on people’s wings, for if humans could fly, they’d be burned by the sun.

I don’t think people without these minor addictions exist. But I also don’t believe this mythical, balanced person is an ideal we’re meant to aspire to.

Excessively engaging with the world is our way of dealing with the ridicule of the cosmos. We’re dropped into this life knowing full well we can’t take anything out of it when it’s our time to leave — and we’re supposed to play nice? I don’t think so. I think we should cause all the ruckus we can.

What’s dangerous is when we let the world’s corrupted standards dictate where we spend our disproportionately allocated chunks of time. It’s okay for inner motivation to trigger our irrational dedication to something, but outer success can never be the reason to keep it around.

When I quit freestyling, that was me finding the strength to prioritize my health over being a pioneer. When I quit gaming, that was me forfeiting a competition where there was nothing to win except respect.

In the zone (2008).

These addictions were initially fueled by fun, but once the world pushed the right buttons, my ego took over and it became very easy to see my limitations. When that happens, the only answer is to let go. You’ll either find your way back or realize it was never the right addiction in the first place.

This isn’t meant to advertise this definition of ‘addiction.’ I’m not saying we should all dig our own rabbit holes. If you have your balance and like it, by all means, enjoy. What I am saying is that if you’re already down the burrow, don’t worry. Most of us are. Just don’t let the world shut you inside.

Me? Nowadays, I’m addicted to art. I work way more than I should and I can’t stop thinking of things I want to create. Sooner or later, the world will probably tell me that I’ll have to keep doing it in order to nail its definition of success. Whenever that happens, all I want is to remember why I started.

I hope I’ll be able to. I really like this one.

Technology Break Cover

Why We Need Breaks From Tech To Use It Best

One of the funniest moments in the Iron Man films happens when Tony Stark finally answers a question that’s crossed every viewer’s mind at least once:

“How do you go to the bathroom in that suit?”

With a first slightly contorted, then visibly relieved face, he tells us at his 40th birthday party: “Just like that.”

While it’s great that Mark IV’s filtration system can turn pee into drinking water, it doesn’t bode too well for a public icon to showcase lack of control over his own bodily functions. Not that his mental faculties were any more capable, because he is utterly, completely drunk. Wasted beyond repair.

Tony Stark might be wearing the suit, but, in that scene, he is not Iron Man. Just a dazed, desperate man, stuck in a million-dollar piece of technology.

Even the biggest talent with the best set of tools can achieve nothing if their mind isn’t in the right place. Of course we aren’t genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropists, but there’s still a lesson here that pertains to us:

We, too, over-identify with our devices.

A Bubble Made of Algorithms

After revealing his secret identity to the public, Stark had to defend his unique, metallic property in front of the US Senate. A few days prior to his birthday bash gone off limits, he refused to hand it over to the state, claiming he’d “successfully privatized world peace.” Just imagine that pressure.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. commented on his character at the time:

“I think there’s probably a bit of an imposter complex and no sooner has he said, ‘I am Iron Man –’ that he’s now really wondering what that means. If you have all this cushion like he does and the public is on your side and you have immense wealth and power, I think he’s way too insulated to be okay.”

We might not fly halfway around the world in seconds to fight for what we believe in, but then again, we kinda do. Thanks to our smartphones, we now carry the whole world in our pocket. As with Tony’s suit, it is precisely the power they bestow on us that insulates us.

Tony’s resources are near-unlimited; so are our options to do, to be, to create with a few taps. He’s a fast learner; we can now teach ourselves anything. Tony’s got JARVIS to manage everyday needs, we’ve got Siri. The list goes on.

And yet, no matter where he goes, Stark is seen not as the man inside the suit, but the superhero it represents. Similarly, we, in many school yards, lecture halls, and offices around the globe, are often judged by the brands, the products, the tools we choose — and our phones top the list.

The comparison might be exaggerated, but, while we’re not quite as closed off from reality as Stark, we’re still isolated enough to be often busy celebrating our power instead of using it, let alone use it well.

In Amusing Ourselves To Death, written in 1984, author Neil Postman made one of the rarer, more accurate predictions about computers:

“Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

While it’s hard to argue with the former point, the latter is a little more complex. We can now work anywhere, create anything, and access all the world’s knowledge. At the same time, we rarely tap into these possibilities, often spending our days chasing mindless distractions. The balance always changes, but we all know what it feels like when it’s off.

But where does this disconnect come from when it does? Why is there such a big gap between the power of our tools and our efficiency in using them?

I think it’s because of how we value them. Not too little, but too much.

The Huxleyan Warning

Postman’s timing in publishing the book was no coincidence. After discussing the issue at the Frankfurt Book Fair that same year, he dedicated most of its pages to answering a single question:

“Which dystopian novel most resembles our world today?”

Taking sides with Apple, he eventually concluded that 1984 wasn’t like 1984, but more accurately reflected the ideas in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

“As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. 
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. 
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. 
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. 
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. 
In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. 
Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

There are lots of arguments to be made for both sides, and which one comes closest depends heavily on the circumstances of your life. But while no book will ever describe our exact reality, if we at least consider Postman’s Huxleyan warning, we can ask another interesting question:

“What would the things we love ruining us look like?”

And today, we, the human species, love one thing above all else: technology.


The Most Powerful Ideology of All

Commenting on Apple’s ad masterpiece, Youtuber Nostalgia Critic remarks:

“Yes, Apple will save us from the terrifying 1984-style future. For as we can clearly see today, no longer are people lined up like cattle for hours and hours on end! No longer will people dress alike in cold, colorless environments! No longer will any cultish-style groups gather to honor a grand, controversial leader! And, most importantly, no longer will we be brain-dead, lifeless zombies who plug ourselves into the machine of life we can also call ‘The System.’”

Whether you imagine an iPhone release queue, the architectural style of Apple Stores, their Genius staff uniforms, a furious debate about Steve Jobs, or people with AirPods, staring at their screens, the irony of history is clear.

It might not be quite as bad as an actual surveillance state, but 30 years later, the former leader of the empowerment revolution has managed to become the world’s first trillion-dollar business only on the back of evolving into the exact thing it used to despise. And regardless of where you stand on the issue, the comparison alone proves a point Postman also makes in his book:

Technology is ideology.

Historically, the most successful ideologies have been those with the best stories. Religion, politics, science, the narratives surrounding these world views have always, for better or for worse, dictated not just what we do, but how we communicate, even see ourselves.

So what ideology could possibly be more powerful than one embedded in our modes of action, of communication, and of self-perception themselves? Enter, the smartphone. The chief representative of tech. One tool to rule them all, enabling us to do, talk, and self-reflect, both in a literal and figurative sense.

How could we not have adopted it wholesale? The story is just too good.

Besides the smartphone, no other icon symbolizes this triumph of technology more conclusively than Iron Man. The fictional character is the smartest man on the planet, his weapon the pinnacle of tech. The real guy in front of the camera is one of the highest-paid actors, making some $200+ million from his work with Marvel, the most successful movie franchise of all time.

Back on earth, though not for long, Stark’s real-world counterpart Elon Musk is worshipped as the god of our tech startup movement, meant to usher in our civilization’s next age. But, as another famous comic book figure claimed:

“If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good. 
And if he is all-good, then he cannot be all-powerful.”

When tech becomes ideology, tools become identity.

This is the exact problem that befalls Stark in the movie. Once he can no longer separate the iron from the man, he is completely incapacitated, reduced to blowing up watermelons in mid-air with a suit that could save millions. That’s not what he built it for.

Just like we didn’t invent the smartphone to stop thinking. What good is a device that connects you to four billion brains around the planet if the best you can think of doing with it is playing Candy Crush, taking selfies, and ordering more toilet paper?

Tony Stark built the first Iron Man armor from scrap metal in an Afghan cave. Much less a suit than a pile of alloy plates, it was barely capable of protecting him long enough to face the crossfire, defend himself, and catapult him out of reach for his enemies. But it was an extension of his mind that saved his life.

With each future iteration, however, it became less of something he used and more of something he was. Until, one day, JARVIS couldn’t help but note:

“Unfortunately, the device that’s keeping you alive is also killing you.”

Unlike Tony, however, who has actual reason to fear for the arc reactor in his chest, we don’t depend on the functionality of our devices for survival. Not in the slightest. But you’d think we do. Because we’ve never been educated about technology’s ideological nature and the incapacity it produces when fused so irrevocably with our identity.

This education, may it come early from our schools or late from within the medium itself, is also the solution Postman proposes:

“For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. The asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”

The most obvious of those dangers, one that could lead a society to be at the whim of its own tools, is its reliance on their ubiquity. And we? Well…

A tendency to overexpose ourselves to the available is in our very nature.

The Right We Must Claim Back

There is one big difference between Orwell’s Big Brother and Apple’s twisted fate: the pain modern consumers put themselves through is entirely self-inflicted, even voluntary. Talk to the first person in line for the new iPhone; you’ll find they couldn’t be happier.

It’s almost as if the promises of technology — the feelings about this great future bound to come — are more important than whether they come true. That’s why Postman turned to Huxley. Because unless we start questioning, smartphones are no better than soma, the legal drug we freely buy that keeps everyone satisfied, ignorant in bliss.

But despite having no apparent side effects, soma is still toxic. Anything is, if you’re immersed in it 24/7. This goes for any substance, matter, and physical item, but also for any thought, any feeling, any idea and state of mind. It goes for the use of your smartphone, your laptop, and your TV, as much as it goes for criticism, a new company policy, and even happiness.

At the end of Brave New World, one character sees behind the facade of controlled, poison-induced euphoria. As a result, he claims back his right to unhappiness. To danger, struggle, and pain. But with that, he also claims back his right to freedom. To goodness, art, poetry, religion, and change.

What we have to demand back is the right to be separate from our technology. To not be identified with our tools. The human self has always been a complex structure, made of millions of facets. It’s an armor alright — and, yes, it gets shattered — but it’s one we can always reassemble, as long as we pick up the pieces. If we neglect this fact, we lose our sense of distance between who we are and the tools we use to project that self onto the world.

Without this distance, life is one big blur, and then we die. Ask any struggling artist, any aspiring entrepreneur, any coping single mom and any ambitious manager. To get past, disengage. You are not your devices. You are not your tech-powered job. You are not a future citizen of a technology-fueled utopia.

You are a human being, alive today. Right here, right now.

That’s all you ever need to be. For the rest of your life.

How’s that for distance?


Better Than Utopia

In the end, Stark had to lose almost everything, his health, house, reputation, even one of his suits, to rediscover who he was. A tinkerer at heart. All he was missing was distance. One hard look from afar and even his life-threatening problem was solved. That’s the beauty of clarity. It works instantly.

In Huxley’s book, two other characters are punished for their questions with exile. One laments the thought, while the other welcomes his new destiny. The villain himself, however, has always known distance to be a reward. For the same reason, our tech icons limit access to their products for their kids.

For us, the now-slightly-more-educated, the solution is as simple in theory as it is hard in practice. For it’s a solution we must not just plug in, but live every day. That’s what’s changed. Slowly, but steadily. Especially since 1984.

Being disconnected must now be a conscious choice.

It used to be our default state, because our devices wouldn’t permit our availability at every hour and location. Now they do, which means it’s on us to turn them off and be unreachable in the moments for which we should be.

Creating distance takes practice. But with patience and time, we can unwind what’s entangled. Separate, once again, man from machine. Let them coexist.

Only then can we build something better than utopia: a life true to ourselves.

Our Greatest Asset

I don’t know you, but I know technology has profoundly affected your life. May it continue to do so in the best of ways. But if you ever feel trapped, and we all sometimes do, look for the disconnect that comes from being too close.

The world has always been a forward-thinking place, but if we only believe in technology, we hand it the reigns to take on a life of its own. Sometimes, the life it takes is ours. And we might not even notice.

The truth we’ve forgotten is that it’s never too late for us to take it back. We exist not because, but in spite of everything. Always have. This is our greatest asset. The only reason we need.

Iron Man carries his name not for the metal plates surrounding his body, but for the mind of the man who builds iron things. Between the two must always be distance. Only when it vanishes does the entire construct collapse.

As users of modern technology, we hold a similar responsibility: We need a healthy separation from our tools to build authentic selves. In the fight against the odds that is our life, we must first turn off our phones, so that we may then use them to build meaningful things. What both these aspirations require is distance. The physical, as well as the mental kind.

A real bathroom break should not be where it ends, but it sure is a start.

How To Stay Calm While Chasing Big Goals Cover

How To Stay Calm While Chasing Big Goals

When my best friend and I graduated high school, we came up with “the List.”

We thought about our wildest dreams and put them on a timeline. Three months, one year, then five, then ten. There was only one problem: they were all stupid goals. Like, downright delusional.

For starters, our top priority was to become a billionaire. And it only got worse from there. We thought we’d have made it if we managed to…

  • Own a car for at least $100k, a penthouse, and a private jet.
  • Get one of those black credit cards that probably comes with its own yacht.
  • Spend $1,000 in a club in a single night, all cash, and oh, pour some Cristal on the floor.

If you’re not facepalming yet, now would be a good time. I wish I could go back and punch that kid square in the face. But despite the horrendous outcome, there’s one thing I have to give him credit for:

For the first time in his life, he made a conscious effort to think about what he wants.

What Most People Get Wrong About Setting Goals

If you never reflect on your desires, you live your entire life driven by impulse.

This happens to a lot of people when they bury their childhood dreams deep inside and stop questioning the status quo. Wake up, go to work, hit the gym, have a few drinks, zone out in front of the TV. Then, at 63, suddenly realize what you’ve missed all these years.

While we have no way of knowing for sure unless we’ve lived it, the alternative might be just as painful: You’re constantly fretting about what goals to chase. Did I pick the right one for this year? What if this is a mistake? Was it a good call to leave that job? When am I gonna have time to paint?

We tend to think tracking our goals will always lead to a better result, but that’s only true for the completion of the goal itself, not how we feel about it when we’re done. We miss the bigger point:

Keeping score always leads to anxiety.

The price of tracking your goals is doubt. Worrying is a natural, human behavior; one that is inseparable from the process of organization. It’s true, we can go after both our big goals and the small ones, but one always comes at the expense of the other. The tension of having to manage the ratio, the pain of choosing which to sacrifice, over and over again, will never go away.

As a corollary, the person who satisfies only their short-term needs might eat one big bowl of regret some day, but for 40 years or so, they avoid the stress of managing desire. That’s no small thing. Again, we can’t know for sure, but my guess is that much of that same regret is also baked into our prioritization of dreams. Except it’s unconfirmed. We create it in our own heads by doubting our decisions.

The result is that we can either ignore our goals, ride the wave, and roll the dice with long-term regret or suffer constant, short-term discomfort from fretting about our choices, but feel more in control about the life we build.

From a cosmic standpoint, this is rather hilarious. There’s a good chance we’re all left with the same amounts of joy and pain. The procrastinators and the go-getters. The only part we get to decide is how we distribute them over the course of our lives.

Most of us opt for the latter. It often feels better to have chosen something, even if the choice ended up being wrong. At least you made the call.

But the behavior that follows is somewhat paradoxical.

Adrift the Ocean of Desire

When I made that list eight years ago, I, too, chose to choose.

Since then, I’ve written, crumpled, highlighted, marked, taped, and trashed hundreds of lists of goals. Because sometimes, the only way we can deal with doubt is by caving. By saying “alright, I think I screwed this one up,” and tossing the plan.

As a result, we might sway wildly between extremes. One day, you might decide to become a world-class music producer and that, from here on out, the only thing you’ll focus on is releasing a new beat every week. But four weeks in, you realize the memories of Friday night poker with your friends are more important. So you stop.

That cycle might go on for years. Ironically, this is not unlike the mindless procrastinator, who reacts to all the antics of his mind instantaneously. And while some of this course-correcting is normal, if we do it too often, it’s as if we’re adrift at sea, tossed about by waves of desire, with zero control at all.

But wasn’t that what we originally demanded? Isn’t it control that we chose to pay the price of stress for? What a mess! Obviously, there’s no perfect solution to all this. But I’d still like to show you one tool that has particularly helped me in dealing with it.

I call it my Not-A-Bucket-List.

A List With a Strange Purpose

A lot of useful metaphors exist that can help us balance our goals. There’s the story of the teacher, filling up a jar with rocks, pebbles, sand, then water — to show the most important things have to come first or there’ll be no space left.

Then, there’s the tale of Warren Buffett and his pilot. Apparently, he told him to make a list of his top 25 career goals, then split it into the top five and the remaining 20. Instead of telling him to allocate his time equally, Buffett then said he should toss the second list and avoid it at all cost.

A Not-A-Bucket-List is basically the opposite of the second list. Unlike goals 6–25, which still feel like you should prioritize them, there’s nothing on there that means a lot to you. Nothing you’d die regretful of, having left it undone. It is a list of all the things you’d be happy to sacrifice for a greater goal.

I keep mine in my notes on my iPhone so I can add to it whenever, wherever. I use five categories:


I really wanna buy a sandwich maker. Except I’ve been getting along fine without one for the past eight years. I’ve also been procrastinating on buying a new watch after my old one broke. And ordering a 23andMe kit. Don’t even get me started on online courses. Then again, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Books & Reading

If I read all the books and articles recommended to me, I’d be the smartest guy on the street — because I’d literally be homeless. Life is short and I wanna get things done. I love reading and I do a lot of it, but there’s never enough time to read everything.


Watching a movie a day and then writing about it is the easiest way I can think of to start your career as a writer. And while I write about movies a lot, I already have more ideas than I can write about. Sorry, Netflix backlog, you’re gonna get longer.

Fun Business Ideas

It would be really cool to start gaming again and make a Youtube channel. Or create mashups of my favorite songs. Produce electronic music, rap, and open a café. But none of it is worth sacrificing what I’ve built with writing so far.


We all like to tell ourselves we’re a good friend and to a few people, we are. But most of our kindergarten, high school, and college friendships fade as we get older. Instead of convincing myself I can hold on to all of them, I’d rather admit that other things are more important, but note the names I fondly remember. This way, I can always pick up the phone and call them if we happen to find ourselves in the same place at the same time.

The goal of a Not-A-Bucket-List is to never look at it.

It shouldn’t become your go-to list to pick the next movie. Just the place you turn to if you want to watch a movie and haven’t already got one in mind. Nine out of ten times I open it, it’s to add something, not pick something.

That’s how a Not-A-Bucket-List helps you find peace of mind. Because the little things are accounted for. Even if all they do is catch dust.

The Question That’s Left

Becoming aware of our desires is a gift. The first time it happens, we dare to dream big. Too big, often. Soon, we realize we’ve awoken to a new, just a different struggle: balancing our lofty aspirations with our modest goals.

And while the emotional turmoil of forsaking goals altogether might be the same, picking our battles and keeping score gives us the comforting feeling of having done the best we can do. That’s an effort worth making, but one that is easily negated when it’s met with constant doubts and countless, unnecessary changes of plans.

A Not-A-Bucket-List can help you acknowledge the fact that you, like all of us, have many dreams and plans, but not enough time to make them all come true. After making and throwing out many goal lists over the years, I find it one of the most useful tools to stay calm while trying to accomplish big things.

It’s almost as if the sole act of writing something on that list makes it less important. Maybe it does. But what’s most beautiful is that there’s ever room for more. Because the biggest question will always be left:

What are you willing to happily sacrifice all the little things for?

Why We're Afraid of Being Alone Cover

Why We’re Afraid of Being Alone

Located at 2709 East 25th Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a grey, one-story building. Nested among trees, with concrete walls covered in poison ivy, it’s so inconspicuous it almost seems to merge with its surroundings.

Inside, however, lies the most terrifying room in the world. It looks like this:


It’s not like people are tortured inside the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs. But when researchers close the door and shut people in absolute, perfect silence, few can bear the experience.

In a room so quiet you can hear your own breath, heartbeat, blood flow, even your bones’ grinding noise, things get uncomfortable real quick. First, people lose their balance. Hearing helps us move, so in a space without sound, we must sit down. Soon, the ear begins to exaggerate, even fabricate its own noises, like a heavy hum or ringing sound. Some start to hallucinate.

While most people give up after minutes, once an hour passes even the toughest have had enough. That’s because — and this relates to actual torture — the pain we suffer in complete quiet is not physical. It’s mental.

Our biological aversion to silence is only a symptom of a much deeper, more elemental problem: we’re fundamentally afraid of being alone.

The Story That Never Stops

Locking yourself in a room that resembles the infinite, noiseless vacuum of space might be an extreme example, but there are other signs of our discomfort with nothingness. Some are rather obvious, like the constant engagement with our many technological devices or the frequent desire to escape our state of consciousness using music, drugs, sex, or alcohol.

Others hide on a less visible level, like what happens when we wake up alone in the middle of the night: We immediately start telling ourselves a story.

Maybe it’s a scary story about a stranger in your house, or a story about the coming day that excites you. It might even be a mundane story that makes perfect sense. But it is always a story your mind has conjured for the sole purpose of distracting you from the fact that, right now, there is only you, wrapped in darkness and silence.

If you pay attention to it, then pause, you’ll notice it’s only when there’s no story that the real suffering begins. Maybe that’s why the story never stops.

We rise from our beds in the morning and the voice in our head starts talking. We tell ourselves a story while we get ready for work, another one on the way, several dozen while we’re there, more at home, and the last one right until we fall asleep. Fascinating, right?

It’s almost as if consciousness itself is an endless fight against inner silence. That’s the most elaborate, universal scheme of escapism I’ve ever seen.

But what is it that makes solitude so terrifying?

Seeking Answers in an Answerless World

When asked what makes America the greatest country in the world in the opening scene of The Newsroom, one panelist answers with “freedom and freedom.” It’s true. No other country has placed this good higher in its value chain. And while most countries have been following in America’s footsteps, the weight of that freedom in the 21st century is now crushing us.

Not quite coincidentally, right after the atrocities of World War II, when the importance of freedom was clearer than ever, a philosophy trying to describe this burden arose. The core idea of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence.” That means you simply are — and it’s your job to give life meaning.

As seekers of answers in an answerless world, our main frustration therefore lies with choice. That’s why, when you dig into the ideas of Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus and others, you’ll find they all have their own terms for the oppression inherent in freedom. Some call it ‘anxiety,’ others ‘angst’. Sartre refers to it as ‘anguish’ — the painful awareness of free will and choice.

Today, we live in a world where individual freedom is more accessible than ever. It’s not universal yet, but reaching more people by the day. As a result, existential crises are at an all-time high. Young people get them earlier, older ones more often, no one seems to be spared. Sadly, our philosophers leave us only with questions. Questions, such as:

Who am I? Where am I going? What’s the meaning of life? Of my life? Who do I want to be? And why am I not that person?

That’s why, when we’re alone, there’s always a hint of anxiety in the air. All you’re left with when you take out your earbuds and turn off your phone are these daunting, existential questions posed by the freedom we value so much.

Naturally, rather than face them, we prefer to plug the music back in and run away from them full-time. We all go overboard with sensory pleasures one way or another. Some of us chase the thrill of orgasm all their lives, others drown their inner turmoil in whiskey, some forever dull their senses with TV.

We seek reassurance in stimulation. That’s what the story in our head, the constant engagement, the flow state experiences are really for. Because whenever the stream of ‘everything’s-fine-at-least-for-now’ stops, it’s like someone pushes us into that room and shuts the door behind us. Silence.

Suddenly, the questions become really loud. There’s nowhere to escape. But since we’re so busy engaging with the world in ways we hope will comfort us, we miss the reassurance from realizing we don’t need to. In hopes of not going insane, we drive ourselves insane.

And yet, the music stops for all of us anyway.

The Inevitable Truth

Imagine a single person, representing all of humanity, being locked inside the anechoic chamber. What would she do? I think she would scream, yell, and shout. As loud as she can. Until she is exhausted, ultimately arriving in the same silence where she began.

I think this image delivers an apt description of the world’s character as a whole: restlessness. But a body, an animal, any moving object, really, no matter how fast it goes, must eventually come to rest. It’s a law of physics.

The analogy here is that when we choose overstimulation, a burnout becomes inevitable. We all land in the occasional, long stretch of inner silence sooner or later. We can find it at the end of a burned down candle or face it in the comfort of our own choice. But we must all deal with it in time. Because for all the decision power we have, it does not grant us freedom from truth.

The truth I see here, at the bottom of all this, is sobering: I think we are alone.

As Twitter-philosopher Naval puts it, “life is a single-player game.” We’re born alone and we die alone. In between, we must learn to know ourselves, love ourselves, lose ourselves, find ourselves and do all of it over again. All of your life’s most important moments, you experience alone. You suffer pain alone. You enjoy the dopamine high of victory alone. Even things you experience in the presence of another person — your first love, first kiss, first time — you ultimately live through inside your own head and, thus, alone.

At first, that makes everything sound even scarier. But it’s actually beautiful.

First, loneliness is an absolute necessity to deal with life’s important questions. All of the noise and distractions don’t help. They make things worse. Because while sitting in discomfort won’t always guarantee the best outcome, running away will always lead to regret.

Second, our singular, unchangeable perspective on the human experience is what makes us unique. If our point of view wasn’t locked at the individual level, our species en masse would never have ventured this far. What each of us brings back from their own depths of quiet makes us stronger as a whole.

Lastly, and this is where the true beauty of facing your own desolation lies, we have solid evidence to believe it improves us as individuals. For over 3,000 years now, we’ve had a name for practicing the discomfort of nothingness.

It’s called meditation.

Engaging With Emptiness

Steve Orfield, the founder of the silent lab, has noticed something in his visitors throughout the years. Those suffering from autism, ADHD, or other conditions of anxiety and hyper-sensitivity enjoy the anechoic chamber. They say it’s calm. Peaceful.

There’s something to be said for quietness if the people who run from it end in overstimulation and burnout, while those with ailments around those things prefer it. Maybe it’s because the silence of reality is the best reassurance. It’s relieving to disengage, almost remove yourself from the world, and observe that it keeps turning for a while.

But doing that requires focus. When you pause your inner monologue, you need somewhere to pull your attention. Maybe it’s the image of your own, empty head. Or a tiny, visual or haptic sensation. The most common place people choose, however, is the one we all share: our breath.

In. And out. In. And out. Reducing your own expenditure of energy to a minimum is a deliberate decision to rest. It’s like taking a stand at the shore of the ocean and then letting the waves wash over you. The silence. The questions. The loneliness. Everything.

When you open your eyes, you’ll realize you’re still here. A survivor. And while everything’s the same, something’s always changed. I’m not a strict meditator and I don’t think it only works as a rigid practice. To me, the point of it is to engage with emptiness. To carve out a small space in your mind, sit there all by yourself and draw strength from that. You can do that anywhere, anytime.

Even the idea of a one-minute meditation on the subway reminds me of Will Smith’s observation about skydiving: “The point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear.” It doesn’t make it less dangerous to venture into the depths of your own mind. Just less scary.

But that alone makes it an experience worth having.

The Outside World and Us

As the world provides us with more and more freedom to self-actualize, the mental weight of that freedom gets bigger and bigger. Instead of facing what may be too much to lift, we’ve become masters of avoidance to the point of feeling physical discomfort with silence.

We flush our senses with emotions, running from the quiet in which difficult questions arise. In doing so, we miss the hard, but comforting truth that life is ours to live and ours alone.

Like the ancient tradition of meditation shows us, solitude is not a state to be feared, but one to enter prepared and practice. Engaging with discomfort allows us to focus our attention, accept what we can’t change, and address what’s important. And there’s more than one way to do it.

It takes lots of effort, but learning to enjoy solitude will make us more comfortable with our limitations, imperfections, and, ultimately, ourselves.

The outside world is louder than ever. Let’s meet it by being quiet inside.

The Hero in All of Us Cover

The Hero in All of Us

In the early 1960s, the team of a Manhattan comic book company was on a roll. They had just created a slew of characters that quickly became popular among fans. But when they wanted to create yet another hero, they got stuck:

“The thing with a superhero that you have to get is a unique superpower. Well, we already had somebody who was the strongest guy in the world, somebody who could fly, and so forth. I was thinking: ‘What else is left?’”

As they thought about what to do, one of the writers looked up and saw a fly, crawling up the office wall. He thought to himself:

“Wow! Suppose a person had the power to stick to a wall, like an insect…”

The name of that writer was Stan Lee. And then, he created the best superhero Marvel ever made.

Numbers Don’t Lie

When you ask people who their favorite superhero is, most of them will tell you it’s Batman, or Superman, or maybe Wonder Woman. But when it comes to holding a place in our hearts, there is an undisputed #1. No other character is printed on more t-shirts, embossed on more mugs, featured in more video games, or sells more Halloween costumes than him.

When the cards are on the table, Spider-Man is the most popular hero of them all. We might be more curious to see the latest Superman blockbuster, but when we have to vote who we’ll stand for with our money, who we’re proud to side with in the most public of ways, we will choose Spidey every time.

But why?

The World Before Spider-Man

On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense for a teenager with the abilities of a spider to be the most beloved by fans. After all, he’s just a kid, and a nerdy one at that. Plus, for a supposed superhero, he sure has the weirdest set of powers. Aren’t our idols meant to be larger than life? Inspiring figures we can look up to?

I think that, until our awkwardly dressed web slinger came around, they were.

With the exception of Captain America, prior names in history’s long chronology of superheroes mostly credited their abilities to supernatural causes. Their back-stories are full of meteor impacts and secret alien societies on planets far, far away. This somewhat isolated them from readers before they even turned the first page. And yet, it made for a great escape. Who wouldn’t want to fly like an eagle, swim like a fish, or see through walls with their eyes? If even just for a few hours and only in their own head.

But when Spider-Man swung along, he did something no magic savior that came before him ever could: he brought the realm of heroes down to earth.

Our Friendly Neighborhood Loser

When you examine the origins of Spider-Man, it’s easy to wonder about the reasoning behind many of the creators’ choices. Why would they make him a teenager? The teenager was usually the sidekick at best. Why even make him human at all? And not a particularly strong specimen either.

While I don’t think Marvel made all these decisions on purpose, they happened to come together in a fascinating way:

Everything that initially made Spider-Man a weaker hero also made him a stronger human being.

He’s not the heir of a billion dollar empire. He’s not an immortal, bulletproof alien. Or born a genetic freak. Peter Parker’s parents died when he was very young, but that aside, he’s a normal kid from a normal family, living a normal life. Like the majority of comic book readers, he goes to school. And his biggest struggle is one most of us are painfully familiar with: being a nobody.

Until, one day, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and everything changes.

A Familiar Transformation

It’s not just Peter Parker’s life pre-costume that resonates. Even his path to becoming a hero contains elements that speak to us on a subconscious level. His abilities have their roots in scientific experiments, not wizardry. They’re a stretch, sure, but they still feel believable.

What’s more, unlike an exaggeration of existing traits, like superhuman strength or the ability to run at lightning speed, being equipped with an awkward combination of new physical features forces our hero to figure out who he is all over again. Something we all go through in puberty. In that sense, even his strange set of new skills contributes to his relatedness.

To top it all off, even after Peter Parker’s physique has changed, he is still a loser. A teenager in way over his head. If he doesn’t learn fast, he won’t be a very useful guardian. But the more he practices, the more he’s forced to sacrifice his relationships, even his dreams. Sound familiar? That’s the pain of anyone trying to accomplish anything meaningful ever. As a result, Spider-Man is the most relatable superhero of all time.

But there’s something more to the story. A connection that runs even deeper.

The Origins of Ambition

There’s one more thing that sets Spider-Man apart from his contemporaries: he never wanted to be a hero. He didn’t choose to pick up that cape, to become a symbol, to take the serum. Instead, he’s the victim of an accident at the science fair.

Like a kid being pushed into a pool, Peter Parker is a guy like us, thrown into exceptionally cold water. Only once the damage is irreversibly done does he decide to take responsibility and tackle the task life’s burdened him with. That’s the most honest explanation of ambition I’ve ever seen.

I think in our own lives, it works just the same. Some day, a vial breaks and the liquid is released. Like the spider venom seeping into Peter Parker’s veins, it permeates slowly, but the switch can never be un-flipped. It’s impossible. You can’t go back. And, as in Spider-Man’s case, a great many variables must simultaneously fall into place to cause this triggering event.

Usually, it’s a mix of trauma, naiveté, regret, fear, anger, and, out of all things, self-love. Before I started writing, I began to fear a conventional desk job career. I regretted not starting anything earlier and I was naive enough to believe I could make a living telling stories. Adversity inspires humans to do great things.

Sometimes, it’s a small crisis, like what character can keep up your winning streak, or wishing desperately for a beautiful stranger’s kiss. Sometimes, it takes an outright catastrophe, like a cheating spouse or a terrible illness. But it always takes some crisis for humans to see they have great power.

And with that power comes great responsibility.

A Calling for All of Us

People love to split the world into two camps. They think there are the superheroes, and then there’s us. The losers. From day one of his fictional existence, this is the biggest misunderstanding Spider-Man was meant to clarify. He teaches us is that, in reality, the loser and the hero are the same.

Due to his lackluster, mundane life and his accidental, almost traumatic transformation, Spider-Man cannot be a hero defined by his feats or even his features. He must be a hero defined by his character. And we all have one of those. If some heroes are nothing but the random result of their environment, then what’s to stop us?

For if the only thing that really sets Spider-Man apart is his courage in the face of adversity, then he’s the first to send a message all superheroes were actually meant to send. A message one of his masked colleagues put so eloquently:

A hero can be anyone.

It’s not just that we, as individuals, feel we could be Spider-Man. It’s that we collectively realize any one of us could be Spider-Man. Because all he did, despite struggling with the hand he was dealt, is give his best to do good in this world. I think this is incredibly empowering.

It is also a good reminder to never belittle those with less ambition. Because no one ever knows if your switch has already been flipped. You might not notice it today, or even tomorrow, but in time, you will show us all. For all we know, you’re just like Spider-Man. Or all of us, really.

A superhero in the making.