Monogamy in the 21st Century

Certain corners of pop science like to frame monogamy as a cultural bug that has somehow snuck past evolution. Others argue it did come with survival advantages for a time, but now it’s an outdated feature. Divorce rates of 50% and above sure seem to add fuel to this fire. Why spend 60 years with the same person when you can spend 20 years with three each? Different partners for different seasons, and so on.

Yesterday, I reflected on my own hunter-gatherer instincts being alive and well — but I also realized I’m harnessing those instincts in ways suited to the 21st century. And while redirecting nature where possible is efficient, advisable, and often sufficient, in some cases we can and will override it altogether. If the men of today don’t need to chase wild animals down the street with a spear in order to satisfy their inner neanderthal, they don’t have to spread their genetic material to every homo sapiens with two X-chromosomes either — and can even get through life without doing so at all.

Monogamy may be the most prominent example of annulling our biological roots, but actually, we’re choosing sacrifice and service over self-preservation all the time. Why become a bodyguard, firefighter, or policewoman? Why try to leave your kids an inheritance — a concept universally accepted and even tax-advantaged by governments around the world — when you can spend every last cent you have on staying alive as long as possible? Why ship food to another nation? Why send in the army to support another nation’s cause? Perhaps anti-evolutionary behavior isn’t as uncommon or unreasonable as we think. What if it’s not anti-evolutionary to begin with?

In a world where everyone has more digital connections than ever yet fewer real friends at the same time, a world where work has fully permeated our lives and developed the potential to creep up any minute on any day, a world where dating apps have destroyed natural relationship economics and the illusion of infinite choice encourages us to never commit to anyone, well, maybe in such a world staying with one partner for your entire life isn’t a bug. Maybe it’s a superpower.

Why spend 60 years with the same person when you can spend 20 years with three each? Because the last 40 years are not the first 20 repeated twice. A great relationship, like everything, gets crispy at the end. For all their hardship and health problems, I bet if I asked my grandparents about their 60-year marriage, they’d say the last ten years were some of the best. But you don’t get those years if you don’t work together through the early struggles, the messy middle, and the inevitable end. You’ll get an expensive divorce lawyer and the emotional scheduling nightmare that is shared custody instead — plus all the other chaos that comes with our modern high-volatility life, of course.

Marriage and monogamy are not perfect concepts. From religious bias to routine and boredom to keeping the romantic spark alive, they come with plenty of knots to unravel. But when you’re part of a generation for whom it’s harder than ever to own a home, own a job for the long haul, or even own a community you’re proud to be a part of, the one thing that should almost feel easy to own is your commitment to another person — especially when maintaining that relationship is no harder than stringing together a chain of loose connections.

The Western individual is as liberated as he or she has ever been. But are we any happier for it? Having lost plenty of its 20th-century shine, monogamy may feel like handwriting letters in a hologram-fueled, cyber-connected world, but sometimes, new is just different, and the old way, having never stopped working, may yet turn out to be timeless.

Evolution Dies Hard

I just spent 23 minutes hunting for a song. This is a common occurrence. It always goes something like this: I play a random collection of music on Youtube. One song jumps out to me. I identify the name of the song. If I’m lucky, it’ll be in the video description. If not, I’ll use Shazam or browse the comments. Then, I try to find just that song on Youtube, save it to a playlist, and, in some rare cases, download it as an MP3 to sync to my phone. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? There might, however, be obstacles.

In this case, the song artist name in the video description was wrong. So first, I had to find the correct one. Once I had that and had found the song on Youtube, I realized it sounded different from the one I’d just heard. As it turns out, in the collection video, they boosted the bass of the song and somewhat cropped the beginning and the ending.

Well, I wanted the version I had heard — so off to Google I went to find a tool that would let me crop out a small section of a Youtube video, then save just that as an MP3. After striking out a few times with various websites, eventually, I found one through Reddit. Cool. But now I had to convert the timestamps from the original video to an exact number of seconds. Okay. Did that too. I double-checked that the loop was giving me the right song with a decent beginning and ending, and pressed the button. Phew! Finally!

With the song playing on repeat and me finally emerging from my tunnel-vision focus, I realized something: First, I had just wasted 23 minutes of my 25-minute writing block on chasing down a four-minute instrumental — and second, I absolutely love falling down a rabbit hole like this. In fact, I do it all the time.

I love searching for a tool that lets me do exactly what I want in one go instead of chaining together several pieces of software to achieve the same outcome — and probably a lot faster. I love scrolling through various Pokémon card shops, deal sites, and comparing prices on different sites until I find the absolute best bargain on a sealed box or particular card. I love hunting video game achievements, to-do list items, and, yes, new songs to put on my playlists.

It’s true that we’ve come a long way from our hunter-gatherer beginnings — but it’s also true that evolution dies hard, or perhaps not at all. Somewhere in me, the ancient find-a-target algorithm is well-alive and kicking. Chances are, you, too, have not been left unscathed by evolution. Whether that’s good or bad we can debate all day long, but we have evidence aplenty that we can direct our ancient instincts towards new ends.

Are you a hunter? Gatherer? Or something in-between? Don’t succumb to your nature. Harness it. It won’t always lead you up the right mountain, but if the worst you’re doing is wasting 23 minutes finding a song, then even evolution won’t manage to carry you off some metaphorical cliff.

The Benefit of an Easy Job

When you’re self-employed, work can be a series of challenging projects you’ve never done. It’s exciting, and you’ll learn more than at any job, but it can also be exhausting. With some luck, you’ll eventually find a rhythm, and work becomes a bit more predictable. Settle into too much of a routine, however, and for one, it might stop working, and for another, you’ll think, “Wait…that’s not why I became self-employed!”

Where entrepreneurship often offers too much volatility, employment frequently offers too little. Even as a lowly intern ten years ago, I already had 99% of my tasks down pat within five months. I remember longing for something new to learn and being glad that my internship didn’t last forever. There was, however, a benefit I clearly recall enjoying but that I can only fully appreciate now, a full decade later: Since the job was rarely too challenging, there was lots of room for genuine self-expression.

Wait a minute. Isn’t being self-employed all self-expression? How could a job get any better? While technically, that’s true — when you’re flying solo, you have infinite options on how to do anything — at the end of the day, your self-expression better make money. That commonly throws a real wrench into the system. At times, the financial pressure will consume all of your creative energy, and whatever you originally envisioned will arrive in a corrupted form. The bills are paid, but your conscience is not.

During my internship, I was nervous for some of the big events, but mostly, going to work meant hanging with coworkers, cracking some jokes, and spooling off the usual program. I felt confident yet at ease at the same time. Since I knew what I was doing for the most part, there was no need to take myself so seriously, and that made the hours at the office mostly frictionless.

And while I didn’t fully appreciate them yet nor use them to their utmost extent, the hours outside of work also came with completely uninhibited space to be creative. On some of my off days, I went to a coffee shop to build my first website. And then another. And another. The time was limited but untwisted by a need for the projects to make money, and that was its own kind of gift.

There is no perfect work-life situation, and sometimes, “too hard” can be a blessing in disguise. But so can be “too easy” — it all depends on how you use your excess time and energy.

Watch the Credits

My girlfriend and I just finished It Takes Two, a creative co-op game in which you must navigate different areas of your own house in order to save a family from falling apart. After the final screen turned black, I sat there for a good ten minutes, watching the credits roll.

I don’t always stay for the full “who made this”-list at the end of a movie in the cinema, after I’m done with a video game, or whenever a long Youtube production comes to a close — but I try. It’s nice to pay your respects to the people behind a work of art, even if they can’t hear it. Plus, the extra five, ten, 15 minutes give you some time to breathe. To reflect on what you just witnessed and let it sink in.

Rolling credits are only one, if perhaps a more formal, kind of appreciation. So are name tags, the little signature in the corner of a painting, and the “you were served by…” line on your restaurant check. Take note of these notes. They’re the rare breed truly worth acknowledging.

You Can’t Do It…Yet

When she trained kickboxing with six-time world champion Benny Urquidez, Shannon Lee never gave herself enough credit. “He would ask me to execute some kick or some move, and I would try it and blow it, and then I would say, ‘I can’t do it,'” she explains in Be Water, My Friend.

Urquidez, however, had a different interpretation of the events, Lee explains: “He would freeze and look at me with his piercing eyes and say, ‘Yet! You can’t do it yet.’ And he would say this over and over and over again to every complaint and frustration I would spew.”

Sometimes, the only difference between inevitable success and guaranteed defeat is a single, three-letter word. “Yet.” “It was positive framing, and it was firm.” Shannon says. The logic is undeniable. “If you just keep practicing, then one day you’ll get it.”

No, it’s not that you can’t do it. It’s just that you can’t do it…yet.

The Undrawn Sword

As he awaits the signal to storm the enemy fortress, soldier Zack Fair notices something about his friend and commander Angeal: “You know, I’ve never actually seen you use that. Don’t you think it’s sort of a waste?” “That” is Angeal’s massive broadsword, which he carries on his back at all times. “Use brings about wear…tear…and rust,” Angeal says. “And that’s a real waste.”

Before he can properly mock Angeal for being a cheapskate, the explosion sounds, the mission begins, and Zack charges headlong into the battle. Not much later, Zack has bested every enemy in sight — except the one giant, flail-swinging monster attacking him from behind just as he wants to head out. With his back quite literally against the wall, Zack seems to be out of options. The monster raises its arm and…zing!

Shining bright and silver, Angeal’s sword hasn’t just deflected the enemy’s flail — it has cut him right in half. “You owe me one!” Angeal says. “Uh, yeah,” Zack stammers. “Oh, sorry if your sword got any wear, tear, or rust on it.” With a grin, Angeal admits: “You’re a little more important than my sword…but just a little.”

Whether your sword is a pen, a checkbook, or your ability to sprint very fast, don’t blunt its edge for the wrong causes. If you do, it won’t be sharp when you really need it. Exercise your right to do nothing wisely. Save the big aces up your sleeve for when it truly matters.

You’re a hero fighting for a great cause and the people you love — and in that lifelong battle, the only real waste is wear, tear, and rust on the very weapon that’ll win you the war.

Standing on the Shoulders of Shrimps

When Isaac Newton talked about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” it’s not clear whether he wanted to pay a compliment to René Descartes, whom he mentioned two lines before, or make fun of the recipient of his letter, a man of small stature.

Had Newton been talking about my grandpa, he might have slotted him into the latter category. For one, my grandpa only stands at 1.65 meters short, and for another, his tiny fashion shop in his 900-soul village went bankrupt in 2013. He was 73 at the time. Still working. Still trying. But the numbers had been going down for years — and neither the second nor the third mortgage could prevent the inevitable.

Clearly, my grandpa is not a giant, and yet he taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: I will never start pouring outside money into my bootstrapped business. If it can’t carry itself, perhaps it’s not meant to be carried at all. Because of this principle, I might get a 9-to-5 this year. It might not make my life easier, but it will prevent me from going into debt to save an asset that may have become a liability. It’ll allow my project to continue to exist in a slightly altered state, and who knows? In this new mode, it could even unlock more creative and ultimately financially sound ways to work on my enterprise!

Make no mistake: We can learn from the slip-ups and successes of the everyday people around us just as much as we can learn from the greats in the history books. We stand on the shoulders not just of giants but of shrimps, pipsqueaks, and snapperheads — individuals cosmically insignificant yet still of immeasurable, infinite value to all the other humans around them. To you. To me. To us.

Learn from who you can learn, not just from who you think you should. Even Newton learned how to walk from his immediate family, and if we are to stand on our own two feet, then we better do it on whatever foundation — or whoever’s shoulders — will hold up to the task.

Confidence Should Be the Norm

It’s true that confidence must be earned by forming real skills through long-term practice. But once you have it, why won’t it stick? A designer with 15 years of experience won’t suddenly become an amateur again overnight. So why won’t she constantly lean on her well-trained gut and move forward effortlessly in every new job and project? Because for all her expertise, she still doesn’t trust her gut, and that leads her into low-confidence environments.

If you gave me ten million dollars and told me to write whatever I want to write, I’d have a lot of ideas to choose from, but I know exactly which ones I’d want to work on and which ones I’d immediately drop for good. The question is: Why don’t I do that now? Why do I try to squeeze words into products with some ulterior motive that ultimately only keeps me second-guessing myself? Because I’m not trusting my gut.

When philosophers and martial artists talk about flow, about unity, about emptiness, what they mean is that when you trust yourself, you can flow with ease through any situation. Whatever’s going on, you’re instantly choosing an authentic response to each next moment. You know what’s right, what feels good, what’s going to work for you, and you act accordingly: with confidence, conviction, and empathy for yourself and those around you.

Whenever I get carried away into a low-confidence environment, a phase where I’m second-guessing every to-do on my list, waking up each morning wondering, “Why am I doing all of this again?” it usually means I’m not in sync with myself. I’ve forgotten my experience. When it comes to writing, that’s about ten years of daily practice. When it comes to being me, it’s 33 years of 24/7-living.

Early into a new journey, low confidence can be a sign that you simply need to practice more. But after a few years of following a certain path, it should be the norm — and whenever it is not, chances are, it has nothing to do with how good you are and everything with forgetting to trust your hard-earned intuition. If you need one, here’s your reminder: Allow yourself to trust yourself. Sometimes, you don’t need to paddle harder. You simply need to start swimming in the right direction.

The Problem Is the Answer

I have been racking my brain about how to fight my website’s declining traffic for months. But what if it’s a feature, not a bug? What if all there is to do is enjoy it?

Less traffic means less revenue. Okay, sure, that’s the part I, like most people, was focused on and immediately started worrying about. But apart from that, what do fewer website visitors really mean? It means there’s a smaller community. Therefore, it’s a smaller project. So why don’t I treat it as such? If something no longer wants to offer a full-time occupation, why don’t you just make it a side hustle? Perhaps that’s exactly where it’s meant to go.

“We shall find the truth when we examine the problem,” Bruce Lee once wrote. “The problem is never apart from the answer; the problem is the answer.”

A mentor of mine once told me that “your problem is someone else’s solution.” What you lack, someone else may have too much of. If the two of you get into a room together, perhaps you can both walk out with more than you had when you walked in.

But sometimes, as per Bruce’s words, the solution can stem even more literally from the problem. What if your challenge is something to be celebrated and embraced instead of defeated? “When the dream starts to fall apart or the formula we are using stops working, this can be a time of crisis,” Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, writes in her book Be Water, My Friend. “Or this can be a time of coming back to oneself, back to your dream, back to your clarity.”

For a long time, I felt I had to publish a new book summary every week on Four Minute Books. That I had to send out a newsletter each Saturday, follow a certain format, and focus on popular titles. Maybe now that none of those things are no longer working, I can just do whatever I like. Only summarize books I personally enjoyed reading, and only after I’m 100% done with them. Change the newsletter to a more casual, personal format. Or write longer summaries whenever I feel that the usual four-minute format doesn’t suffice. Sometimes, what you lose in earnings, you gain in creative freedom!

The problem is never apart from the answer — but what if the problem is the answer? Whatever your current struggle, look at the challenge from a different angle, perhaps even through it instead of at it, and maybe you’ll realize there’s no struggle at all.

2 Definitions of Freedom

A few months into his stint on late-15th-century Japanese soil, English sailor John Blackthorne concludes he is surrounded by people who are trapped with no intent of escaping.

Local lord Yabushige’s allegiance sways with the wind, yet he never tries to get out from under the thumb of either of his demanding leaders. Great warrior Buntaro hates his wife and treats her accordingly, yet he’d never demand a divorce. And Mariko, the wife in question, would love to end her life as a statement about her complex family history, yet she consistently follows Buntaro’s orders not to do it, all while making his life, too, a living hell.

At one point, a drunken Buntaro badly beats Mariko. The next day, she pretends nothing has happened. John believes that, this time, things have gone too far, and he gives Mariko the best philosophical advice most Westerners could give in such a situation: “I see you. Your disgust for him. If you want to be free of that shitless coward, then be free of him.”

When Mariko claims John doesn’t understand, he doubles down on his speech: “Honestly, you’re shuffling around with your manners and your buried self, for what? My life is mine and yours is yours. If you can’t see that, you’ll never be free of this prison.” “No, John,” Mariko responds. “It is you who is imprisoned. If freedom is all you ever live for, you will never be free of yourself.”

Naval Ravikant is a modern-day philosopher aiming to unite Eastern and Western approaches. One of his big perspective shifts was to change his definition of freedom: “My old definition was ‘freedom to,’ freedom to do anything I want. Now the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom. It’s ‘freedom from.'” Whether it’s freedom from reaction, from feeling angry, or from feeling sad, whereas Naval used to look towards agency, now he is looking towards tranquility. This is the gap between John and the people around him, and it’s a tough one to bridge.

If he had a chance, John would be back on his boat and out on the sea in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, his Japanese friends mind less where their lives are going, nor how long they will last, and more which purpose they’ll ultimately serve. As long as the overall mission is the right one — and by and large, they trust that it is even if they can’t see it — they’ll gladly settle for “freedom from” instead of “freedom to.”

Of course, both approaches have their limits. Over the course of John’s story, plenty of his friends lose their lives for ultimately no reason at all. At the same time, John constantly feels trapped despite having a meaningful life right in front of him. As it turns out, we can have both too much freedom and too little at the same time — they’re just different kinds.

Don’t live for freedom alone, yet don’t sacrifice your agency altogether. Balance “freedom to” and “freedom from,” and you can follow both your own purpose and the one the universe has set out for you. Ultimately, John and Mariko are two halves of the same idea, and if that’s what it takes, you can be all the pieces it takes to solve your own puzzle.