Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. He is the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, as well as the co-host of a podcast by the same name. He is one of the world’s leading experts on human performance and has appeared in over 100 publications. In addition, he has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes. In his latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary, he writes about what the world could look like in 15 years if we manage to solve some of the biggest problems we face as a species and what adjustments we would see in society.
In this interview on the School for Good Living Podcast, Steven shares about his latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary. It’s a near-future thriller about the evolution of empathy in the tradition of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. In this interview, we talk about empathy and why it’s critical for us as humans to cultivate at this time to expand our sphere of caring and how we can do so. Steven shares personally from his life about his loving-kindness practice, the skepticism he had coming into that, and the benefits he’s found from doing it. We also talk about a conservation technique called mega linkages, how we can connect more nature for very specific reasons.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:10] My guest today is Steven Cutler, a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist, and the founder and executive director of the Flow Research Collective. Steven is one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. His work has been translated into over 40 languages, and appeared in more than 100 publications, including New York Times Magazine, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Forbes, and on and on. Steven is involved in environmental and animal rights work, so he has a lot going on. I talked to him for the School for Good Living podcast back in January of 2021. In Episode 129 of his book, The Art of Impossible, A Peak Performance Primer. In this interview today, we talk about Steven’s latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary. It’s a novel, a work of fiction, something that I really enjoyed. It’s a near-future thriller about the evolution of empathy in the tradition of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. In this interview, we talk about empathy. Why it’s critical for us as humans to cultivate at this time to expand our sphere of caring and how we can do so. Steven shares personally from his life about his loving-kindness practice, the skepticism he had coming into that, but the benefits he’s found from doing it. He also talks about reframing can be a simple practice, not always easy, and how he’s used it in his life and improved the quality of his marriage, among other things. Steven also talks about nature-related awareness, what it is, why it’s important, what a loss of that awareness has done to us, and how we can get some of it back. This book I love, one of the things I love about it is some of the ideas it introduces me to, including mega linkages. It’s an idea that you can hear more about in this interview, but about how we can connect more with nature for very specific reasons. And then we also talk about fiction versus nonfiction and why it’s great to read nonfiction for facts, but fiction for perspective, which is the basis of wisdom. And Steven has a unique and I think, valuable view on that. As someone who’s written about ten books of nonfiction and a few books now of fiction. You can learn more about Steven and his work at StevenKotler.com. With that, I hope you enjoy this conversation with my friend Steven Kotler. Steven, welcome back to the School for the Living.
Steven Kotler [00:02:38] Thank you for having me. It’s good to be with you. Nice to see you again.
Brilliant Miller [00:02:41] Yeah, good to see you, too. So last time we talked, I started with my favorite question. What’s life about? We’ve covered that a little bit. People who want to hear your response can go hear our first conversation. But let me ask you this instead. What is going on on planet Earth these days? What are you seeing? What are you experiencing? What is up with what’s happening now?
Steven Kotler [00:03:02] Yeah, high anxiety, right? Just high anxiety everywhere, I think. I get you know, we are we’re definitely going through a tough period as a planet. The past three years have been rough and you know, the economy is tricky and the environmental challenges that we’re up against are, you know, more dire than they were. And they’re closer, downside. Upside is, you know, we’re still it’s funny because Peter Diamandis and I wrote Abundance in 2011 and despite this was about, hey, we can use technology to solve grand global challenges. We didn’t say it was going to happen automatically, but we said the technology is available and it’s going to take a huge cooperative effort. We can get it done. And it’s interesting because we looked at a bunch of metrics from, you know, decrease in poverty, too. And with very few exceptions, all of those metrics are still like they’re staggeringly upward. We’re still moving up on a lot of those trajectories. Now, we also said in abundance that this you know, this is we’re plotting exponential growth rates of technology. There’s still going to be huge global pattern interruption along the way. Sure. You know, one of the things that’s interesting. COVID, which was so devastating to so many and ongoing, has given us so much breakthrough medical technology, and artificial intelligence technology. And what people don’t realize is the same sort of AI breakthroughs that give us drug discovery all of a sudden start giving us new foods and fuels and things like that, so they start getting repurposed. And yes, the challenges are mounting, and that seemed very real. But there is a reason for optimism. You know, I like I still but I still think it’s you know, it’s the same issues. We’ve got to figure out how to cooperate at scale and we go after these challenges.
Brilliant Miller [00:05:14] Yeah, no question. And what you’re describing I remember a few years ago, I read Buckminster Fuller, his biography, and he described the term “emergence by emergency.” When things get bad enough, painful enough, sure, we’ll change then. Maybe not before, or maybe if the incentive is big enough. But this brings me to your new book, The Devil’s Dictionary. So this is interesting. You’ve written a book. Normally, you’re a nonfiction writer. I understand you’ve written a novel before. So this is your second novel?
Steven Kotler [00:05:44] Actually, my third. So a little-known fact, I’m actually trained as a poet, undergraduate, and in graduate school, I’m trained as a novelist. And just coming out of graduate school trying to figure out how you pay the bills while you’re writing your first novel, I walked into journalism. That was how I transitioned in. And you know, I came in with my deep interest in science and a lot of the stuff that I’ve been writing about for years and technology and whatever. So that was the stuff I started covering and that was the stuff, you know, the ten books or 11 books I’ve written about those topics or what I’m sort of known for. But there are three novels there and they’ve done pretty well along with.
Brilliant Miller [00:06:26] Yeah, that’s awesome. And one of the things that I’m kind of recalling because I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, I do like science fiction. I remember my neighbor, he was a programmer for Unisys and his office in his basement was floor-to-ceiling sci-fi novels. He’d read them all. And I think it’s amazing how these things that we sometimes imagine or maybe they’re given to us. Who knows how that whole creative process works, that they become a reality? Writing things in a book can become something real.
Steven Kotler [00:06:56] It’s a good transition. And the devil’s dictionary is exactly why I wrote the book. But historically, things show up first in fiction. And the reason I mean, this is this isn’t a mystery. The brain is designed to turn thoughts into things. Right. Like that’s what we do. But there’s an intermediate step and language is that intermediate step. We have a lot of inchoate ideas. Once we put language around them, we can start to hold them in our heads and move them around and combine the parts in new ways, and that allows us to actually build them and create them in the real world. So this is a really natural transition in terms of how the brain normally works. And sci-fi has really, I think, abetted that process a lot, especially because the technologies, as you pointed out, the coders, the people actually, where are you in the technology and inventing the technology have read all this sci-fi. So it’s, you know, some of it’s a map for that stuff. And in the Devil’s Dictionary, we’ve just been talking about the challenges the world’s facing. And you know, I’m deeply concerned about the environmental challenges that these are issues I’ve worked on my whole life, animal rights and environmental issues. And I wanted to envision a world, our world, 15 years hence, where the biggest environmental challenges, climate change, and the species die-off had been the worst parts of it averted. This is not I wasn’t interested in a perfect utopia, nothing like that. I knew averting these challenges are going to cause other problems and create other stuff. But I wanted to say, okay, let’s there’s so much climate fiction or so much sci-fi that’s got this really dystopian view of where we’re going near future. And I wanted to say, Hey, wait a minute. Like, we can still have problems, but like, what does it look like if we’ve solved some of the big environmental ones and then. I asked myself the question, this is essentially what the book is about. Like, what are the big changes in society? Not just technological changes that are covered, of course, but emotional changes, and personal changes. How do we have to change as individuals, as a species to actually allow this new future to come into being? And that’s sort of what the Devil’s Dictionary is about now. Mind you, it’s a pulsing pain, and can’t put it down to turn thriller as hopefully you’ve discovered along the way. That’s a lot of fun to read but that’s the big theme at the top of it that I was really trying to get at.
Brilliant Miller [00:09:21] I love that. And it is something I appreciate about your work that it does have an optimistic it’s not a utopian slant by any stretch. It’s not a Pollyanna, you know, toxic, toxic positivity kind of orientation, but it’s a realistic look at what’s possible. And, you know, when I asked my 18-year-old daughter, hey, what’s your view of the future? Like, really, what do you think? What do your friends think? And basically, the response is, we’re all screwed and there’s nothing we can do, you know? And it’s really, for me disheartening because, yeah, that’s one future that people are living into, but another future that you’ve painted where it’s not perfect, but we’ve addressed and overcome some things, but there’s changed that. So central to this about empathy, I thought, I find that so fascinating because I know it’s not policy, it’s not technology that’s going to save us, if anything will.
Steven Kotler [00:10:13] But I think it will. And so. The book takes as its core theme what I have termed empathy for all. This is empathy for all human beings, of course. But it’s really empathy that crosses species lines. Empathy for plants, for animals, for ecosystems. And short version, if we’re going to solve the big environmental challenges we’re up against, we have to start caring about forests and oceans the way we now care about friends and family. And we have what psychologists call a sphere of caring. And in most people, it’s not that white, it’s your immediate family. It’s a couple of close friends outside of that. Maybe it goes a little bit farther, but you can widen it out. And this is actually interesting because a lot of my work with flow peak, the peak performance, state of flow, one of the things it does, it amplifies a lot of different skills, but it also amplifies empathy and what’s known as nature, relatedness or ecological awareness. This is our ability to see, perceive and care about the natural world flow. Actually, most altered states of consciousness in particular will automatically expand our sphere of caring to the natural world. And one of the reasons this is so critical from an environmental standpoint is that the human brain has to filter out a tremendous amount of data to just live in the world. We take in 11 million bits of external information a second. Forget what we’re generating internally. The voice in our head and everything else with like senses are pouring in 11 billion bits. Consciousness, like everything that you could be aware of, is 2000-bit outputs, right? 2000 bits. And what you can actually focus on is about 180, 200 bits. So it’s really tiny. So the brain always is like sifting and sorting and trying to tease apart what’s critical, what’s casual, what can I forget about? We live in boxes. We stare at boxes all day long. Right word. I’m staring at a box inside a box. Inside a box right now to have this conversation with you. And this is not unusual in the 21st century. My brain has decided the box world is most critical. So it starts filtering out those things that are not box world – plants, animals, and ecosystems, who talk to eco psychologists, who study how we perceive the natural world or neuroscientists. They’re going to say, look, we’re in the middle of this giant environmental mess because we literally can’t see, perceive or care about biologically the very stuff we’re trying to say. And so that is an issue. When I looked at like, what has to change in society? Yeah, there’s a lot of technological stuff that we’ve got to change and there’s a lot of but we’ve got to change that at a really foundational level. So the question of the book starts with, you know, the book is sort of like about a rogue psychedelic that automatically produces this effect on people. And this is you know, this is a new Robin Card Harris, who I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with, Imperial College in London and all the brain scanning work on all of the psychedelics as a new paper out on how psychedelic use, especially if you use psychedelics in nature, expands nature relatedness. And why does this matter? The wider nature-relatedness is the bigger it is. Direct correlation to environmental activism. Small scale. Like I’m going to recycle at home. Big scale. I’m going to go out there and do something about forest, health, ocean out, plastic in the oceans, that sort of stuff. So these are deep correlations. If you want a better future, we have to kind of ignite this fire in people.
Brilliant Miller [00:13:49] Yeah, and that’s not the only scientific kind of insight that is in this book. Right. I think I learned a lot. That’s one of the things I love is when I can be entertained and learn.
Steven Kotler [00:14:03] Thank you so much, because that’s like I always say, if my writing is doing its job of making you laugh, which to me is the sign of the ultimate side of entertainment, is like you’re turning the pages in your state and you’re laughing and I’m blowing your mind. You know what I mean? I want like I want you to be laughing, and then I want you to stop and go, Oh, my God, what did you just. What about you to have that moment and, you know, all the technology? The funny thing is, it’s a sci-fi book based on sci-fi, right? Everything in that book is based on current technologies rolled into the future. Very little exists in the book that isn’t somewhere in a lab today. There are a couple of outliers, but as a general rule, all that stuff is not quite possible. War getting there pretty damn fast.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:45] Yeah, well, tell me about one of these, because I think if people listening aren’t familiar with this concept, it’s one that they’ll be interested in. This one is about mega linkages.
Steven Kotler [00:14:54] Perfect. Yeah, it’s a great place to start. So let’s just talk about conservation biology for a second. So the field of conservation biology goes back to the seventies and was really founded by a guy named Michael Su Ley. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant man. And he made a number of observations that are like drop-dead obvious to us now that we’re not that but once he figured out that he was researching populations and islands and he realized that all island populations are really prone to extinction. That’s right. There’s a limited gene pool in a volcano that explodes or a hurricane blows in, and half of the species gets wiped out. And the remainder, there’s no genetic diversity. You get inbreeding, the line dies out very quickly. That’s an extinction event really common on islands. But what he discovered is holy crap, if you’re an animal, you don’t need the Pacific Ocean to form an island. You can have a two-lane road. A snake, which is preyed on from above right by birds, is instinctively hard-wired not to expose its back to the sky. It will never cross a four-lane highway. Right. A lot of animals work this way. So what he realized is if we’re going to save species, we have to find a way to connect our national parks. And so you’ve got big national parks that are connected by tiny little migration corridors. So the animal plants, animals have a room drum. This is also, by the way, the number one thing we could do to protect plants and animals in the face of climate change because they need to migrate north into colder temperatures. Migration corridors allow this. This is not a controversial idea. Migration corridors like the US Department of Defense, when they take over a military base, they build migration corridors off the base for the animals. This is really standard practice. E.O. Wilson wrote about this in Half-Earth.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:42] Like the most part, not.
Steven Kotler [00:16:43] All these ideas.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:44] I’ve never heard about the use of the military.
Steven Kotler [00:16:46] As you know. I mean, by the way, I hadn’t either. I was doing all this research on the invite, what the military actually was doing that was good for the environment. And what happened is back in the nineties, they just discovered like they were getting sued right and left. Right. You build a bombing range and all and they spotted a turtle and suddenly, like, they can’t bomb. And what do you do? And they figured out it was cheaper than fighting all the lawsuits to actually double the habitat. So if they take over an area, they immediately try to buy equal land on the outside to give back to the plants and animals so they don’t have to have these environmental problems. And then they wanted to connect military bases through migration corridors. And so a lot of this stuff has been going on for a really long time. And it’s really smart thinking. The big project of America is known as Yellowstone to Yukon, like bisecting the entire property. So what I did in my book is in today’s world, we’ve got billionaires, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and what are they doing? They’re competing to go into space. Who’s going to be the first dude on the moon or on Mars? Like, you know, and thank God that we’ve got, like, billionaire egos unlocking this space frontier. Thank you for that. I appreciate I appreciate that. That’s a good use of your egos, I think. But I figured in the future you’re going to have billionaires competing to create mega linkages. Right. These huge invites. So that’s the book is about, you know, our protagonist gets what funny things started happening at one of these mega like bodies turn up we are species never before seen on earth start showing up and there’s a competing billionaire and a competing mechanism that’s how you know the cyberpunk thriller. So you have to have shadowy, dangerous corporations in the background doing Blade Runner shit now. So that’s where we got our regulators at the heart of it because mainly because I think most people have your reaction like what the fuck is right? And yet this is like at the heart of so much deep environmental thinking. And I think it’s not hard to grasp the idea. In fact, during my entire youth, we talked earlier about my book Abundance, where abundance comes from. For me, I was researching mega linkages and I was like, okay if we’re going to say plants and animals, we need a lot of land. Where are we going to get it? We have to reinvent agriculture. We got to get agriculture off the farm and into the city. This led me to vertical farming, which is now everywhere, and also to culture beef growing steak from stem cells. No animals were harmed along the way. And you don’t need 30% of the planet’s surface for ranching anymore. You can feed a lot more people with a lot smaller. Right. And, you know, genetics for agriculture, all the stuff that we looked at in abundance, you know, all the environmental stuff in abundance came out of my brain. Peter helps plant people. I help plants and animals. And that’s how we come together on our books. And all my work was literally like, okay, these technologies are fantastic, but we’re going to need a lot of lands if we’re going to do this work. And, you know, the entire rewilding movement in Europe, which is enormous, right. Because this is you know, these food transitions are happening there as well. Same thing. This is what this is all these same ideas. We just don’t use the term. I think it is as much because it started before the before climate change was everybody’s issue saying things like mega like it just scared people now they’re like oh my God, this fights climate change to protect species that we’re going to die if we don’t protect species. Yeah, let’s do this.
Brilliant Miller [00:20:19] Yeah, yeah, it makes sense. Well, in the economic incentive, as you’re saying as well, like with the military, they found it was cheaper than fighting these lawsuits just to make the investment in front of you.
Steven Kotler [00:20:30] I mean, if you look at it, if you look at mega linkages from a protect ecosystem services and a carbon sequestration perspective. Right. If we say, okay, these are. Not externalities, the market. These are core things that everybody should be valuing and paying for because it’s going to keep us alive. They’re incredibly good investments. Really astounding. Return on investments for maglev bridges.
Brilliant Miller [00:20:55] Yeah. What are your hopes for the book? What does the success of this book look like for you?
Steven Kotler [00:21:08] So I hope enough people I like. So I love writing fiction. I’ll obviously never abandon fiction, but like I, you know, building up a career as a fiction writer allows me to keep going. So I just want people to love it so I can write another one. And that seems to be what’s happening. The critical response has been pretty great to this book, and people seem to really, really dig it. So I just want to keep going. But I mean, also, you know. I want to elevate the conversation around environmental topics. I feel like arguments take place. We’re just arguing. We’re arguing about the wrong things. And B, if you read the book and you look at the environmental issues like what’s coming if we’re going to survive, what we’re up against, what’s coming starts to get really interesting. And that’s also like we should be having those discussions now. Right. And I think those things are starting to change. But like these are not this is really disruptive technology. There’s a lot of power that’s coming into our hands. So that’s amazing. Some of it we want to talk about things out loud. And so like that’s another reason I think you want to put this stuff in sci-fi books so people start having conversations. So my hope is that, you know, millions and millions and millions of people read it because it’s a blast and that we get to have this conversation on a global level, especially if we’re going to talk about mega linkages.
Brilliant Miller [00:22:32] Yeah, for sure. Well, in this idea, too, I think it was in the last conversation that we talked about this notion that technology allows us to be aware of what’s happening around the world instantly. But part of the downside of that is that we don’t have we’re not like evolved for the empathetic response necessary to process that kind of trauma, that kind of pain when we see refugees or things on fire or, you know, this conflict that’s going on, what’s your take on how we can as individuals, how can we cultivate empathy in our day to day lives and not just as a concept?
Steven Kotler [00:23:12] Yeah, so there are three, maybe. So we know what we talked about already. Altered states of consciousness will do it sometimes, but in flow can have this impact on certain meditations. I’ll come back to this a second. Can have this effect. Psychedelics can have this impact if we’re using them in nature. So one, those are some tools in the toolkit. For me, personally, loving-kindness meditation is the most astounding tool you can play with. And I point out love and kindness. You know, I’m a science-based guy. Ritchie Davidson, in my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, has done most of the brain work on meditation, and they’ve found loving-kindness, compassion, and meditation to be the most powerful. It absolutely increases empathy. The thing I also want to mention, is because I’m a performance geek and love and kindness meditation and it doesn’t mean I’ve been meditating for 30 years and I tried every system and the loving God is the last one I went to because that was like really like I’m praying for people. Like, it just felt weird. It didn’t make sense. And is this really going to have the same performance benefits at an individual level as the other stuff? Like I got, the empathy I got, it was going to give me more compassion, but I was like, okay, but like regular meditation gets the focus. It gives me all this other stuff, I guess. Sure, what I found the answer is one, it does. But the thing that is really strange about loving-kindness meditation, which shows up in the research as well, is, you know, so much of what gets in the way of our of optimal living, a performance of is habits, ingrained habits, things we’ve done automatically. We don’t even notice we do that limit kindness. Meditation not only massively increases empathy in your life, but it also shakes free, it makes visible, more unconscious habits than almost anything I’ve ever seen. Like, just flow work is still, I think, at the top of my peak performance list. And, you know, but over the past year, I have really doubled down on playing with love and kindness as a system and everything that every other science researchers come before me has said about. It turns out to be true, and I believe them now, finally. But I was really impressed. And it’s really phenomenal for empathy. But, one side note, because you’ll get a kick out of this at the Flow Research Collective. We’re a research and training organization and we train everybody. But over the past year, we’ve been training a lot of law enforcement and some of the three-letter agencies.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:55] I’m so glad to hear that.
Steven Kotler [00:25:56] They want more empathy. And, you know, obviously, people on the front lines of those jobs also want more peak performance, but they are really understanding that, hey, wait a minute, in the year 2020, peak performance means empathy. And so we’re seeing this shift and flow is one tool. I’m also seeing people doing loving-kindness meditation in places that you would not normally expect it to start showing up for this reason. So those are interesting ways. And I, you know, but I mean, there are simple cognitive reframing tools walk a mile in somebody’s moccasins kind of thing will do it and if you want to call Whiz Bang, Stanford has been pioneering VR for empathy, VR simulations that the most famous one they’ve got, one for environmental empathy and things along those lines. There was when they wanted to alert people to the civil war crisis in Syria. They knew there was a VR empathy than they did. The original one was they wanted people to know what it felt like to be a homeless, middle-aged black woman on the streets in Baltimore like. And so they built that experience and that was actually the first one. And it was so unbelievably powerful. You know, they can they’re essentially using VR as an intervention. And they used with the Syria thing. They used it with Congress. Right? They put like Congress through it. I want to say it was Congress and it was the UN. Maybe it was both, but immediately afterward, aid packages went through the roof. And, you know, so the cool thing about empathy is. Because of mirror neurons, because of oxytocin, we’re hardwired for it’s a very trainable skill. And this is something they figured out with loving-kindness meditation, it tends to feed on itself. Hmm. So, like a little work. The work builds on itself almost automatically. Like, yeah, you have to keep it going, but it’s not as hard. You don’t have to work as hard as you think because it’s really built into us naturally. And for Abby, like I always say this, and I’ve said this before. Evolution shaped our brain, and evolution is the biggest driver of reaction to scarcity. Right. Two reactions you can. Fight over dwindling resources, right. Or run away to avoid becoming somebody else’s resource or get apathetic, get cooperative, get creative, and make new resources. And so, like cooperation, and collaboration, all these skills need empathy. And it’s so foundational survival. It’s really easy to kind of expand it.
Brilliant Miller [00:28:38] Now that that practice I’ve heard of this loving-kindness meditation. A friend introduced me to this term metta which is like a Tibetan, I believe, form of and I understand that different obviously different teachers, different schools.
Steven Kotler [00:28:53] So there’s a guy named Youngjae Ming Ja Rinpoche, who of all the Tibetan teachers, I find him, he’s my favorite. Predominantly because he worked with Richard Davidson. He’s worked with the neuroscientist. So he speaks. He translates difficult, meditative ideas into really great, great English. The clearest I’ve been, as I said, studying and practicing meditation for 30. This is the first day where I was like, Oh my God, finally I get everything I’m doing here. And it makes sense that his work was the breakthrough that actually led me into doubling down on love and kindness meditation. Because I was just interested in what Richard Davidson discovered. I was like, wait a minute, this is you know, they’ve worked with there’s like three main sorts of Tibetan leaders who sort of the Dalai Lama was the head of it. But there are a couple of other guys who got very active and you can sort of pick your guru tradition. There’s the science. And I’ve just really done well with Youngjae’s work.
Brilliant Miller [00:29:58] Yeah, that’s great. And, and I’ll just kind of interject here while I myself am very much a student, by no means a master of meditation or certainly loving-kindness meditation that I think any effort in this direction will yield benefit. Right. Some people listening might think, oh, I’ve got to go find the right guru or I’ve got to go travel, I’ve got to renounce my life.
Steven Kotler [00:30:19] Yeah, no, not at all, though. And the other thing is, the most important thing you’ve got to let people know is the research is really clear on this 12 minutes a day. Is all you really need to start like 12 minutes a day for two weeks, gives you significant stress reduction and some of that is starting to get some of the cognitive benefits, heightened flow, less emotional reactivity, but like three weeks a month in a 12 minutes day and you’re actually starting to make fairly profound shifts. So I think people get frightened away by the like, I’m not doing it right away. And they get frightened away by the like, oh my God, I’ve got to spend hours doing this every day to get anywhere. Who allows that kind of time? Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:31:07] Or they don’t or they don’t see that it’s working. It’s, I’ve been doing my 12 minutes a day for two weeks, but, it doesn’t seem to be working right.
Steven Kotler [00:31:15] Yeah. I always, when I wrote about this, I think it of a puzzle, I always say that like what’s funny is because you just don’t notice. Like, we’re, we’re wired for cause and effect. Like, I do the thing and I get the effect. And what happens is meditation is like, you do the thing and then like three days later, you’re nice to your mother on the phone. Yeah. You’re more patient. You have time to listen to a little bit where you like. That’s the payoff. And we don’t notice it. Yeah, where I start to notice it over time is like certain business problems that will come up again and again and again or even personal problems where it’s like, okay, we’re back here again. And now like, my reactions are so much quieter than they were two years ago, and that’s when I’m like, Oh wow. I really see the difference. And the big deal on the reaction is two years ago like this bad crap happened and it tilted me out of my brain for like a day and a half and I lost a day and a half. And now I’m like, Oh, here’s that crap again. Yeah, it feels really unpleasant, but like half an hour later, I’m totally normal again. Yeah, huge improvement. I just got a day and a half back now.
Brilliant Miller [00:32:19] That’s huge and it’s real, right? And it’s not just the ah experience which as you’re saying, you know, we’re less stressed out, we’re whatever, we’re better able to focus and that kind of thing. So we have the experience, but then there’s also the result that we’re able to produce that we might not have been able to otherwise. So you talk about this is one approach to cultivating empathy is a loving-kindness kind of meditation or practice. Those I talked about like simple reframes, but what do you mean? What do you mean by that? What’s an example of that? Or how could somebody apply that?
Steven Kotler [00:32:48] I’ll give you an example from my own life. My wife and I run an animal sanctuary, as I mentioned, and my wife has been doing this for decades. I had not when I came in and like if you’ve never we had a small bag of dogs, eight dogs to go from eight dogs to 30 dogs, which is what we ramped up to.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:13] That’s a lot of dogs.
Steven Kotler [00:33:15] Living with a pack of dogs. And we don’t. So we do. We wanted to specialize in the worst of the worst scenario. So you are a three-legged, one-eyed Chihuahua with an abusive past, always in a bad mood, violent temper, heart disease, cancer, and mange. You are a guy. Some of these dogs are brain damage. Some of these dogs have been very abused by men and they don’t like bad. One of these dogs was named Misshapen Little Chihuahua, still alive, still with us today. But when my wife and I started doing this work, she had a horrific past, really bad trauma, didn’t like bad, didn’t like me, and would literally stalk me. I would come back from work and he would, like, hide in the bushes and try to attack me. I would get up at 3:00 in the morning to go take a piss. He’d attack me when? On my way back into bed and. I discovered that if you’re shouting at a dog that has been seriously abused and traumatized, two things are true. One, it’s bad for the bad dog. And two, it’s bad for your marriage. Really bad for your marriage, right. So that was not an option for me. But like in our early days, this was a real issue. Like I was having a bunch of the dogs, but which was really you seem to like always get me right at like the worst moment when I’m right when my temper was right on edge and. I had to solve it and nothing was working. And finally, I was like, I went. In the family. I grew up and people lost their temper all the time and we didn’t feed into it. You were just like, you know, I’d lose my mind. Be like, Oh, yeah, Stephen’s having a nutty. Let’s just calm him down and give us some love. And it’s okay, buddy. Know that’s how we were raised to treat each other when somebody was freaking out. And I was like, You know what? I’m going to treat Misha like. I’ve been walking around talking about animal rights and equal rights or whatever. I was like, You know what? In my mind, from now on, I’m going to treat Misha when he’s mad at me. It’s like my brother having a nut. That’s like, that’s what’s going on. That’s how I met him. And here’s the funny thing. So my wife would always come to me and say, you know, blah, blah, blah, this is going on with this dog and this is going on with this dog. And I saw this dog and I’m like, What are you talking about? Like, you’re making this up. None of these things are happening. I couldn’t see what she was talking about for the same perceptual reasons we were talking about earlier. I started treating Misha like my brother, and instead of like he’d charge at me, I’d be like, Oh, all right, you’re that crouched down and start talking to him. And in two weeks, my empathy had expanded so much. Suddenly, all the stuff that my wife had been talking about for years, I started to see, wow. And I actually started to notice that. Long before Meesha attacked me. He would like hair on his, but actually like a quarter would stand up. And the moment that hair went up, if I dropped down, got to his level, and just talk to him at a calm, casual level, he would calm back down and it killed the behavior with him like three weeks and be with us for 15 more years. And we’re good friends and he doesn’t he doesn’t even bark anymore. When I enter the room, we just say, Hi, how are you? But that’s just reframing. Yeah. So I always say, like. Environmentalism really starts at home. It starts with like the plants around us and the ecosystem around us and the animals in our lives, literally. Because once you start seeing them as on more of an equal footing with yourself, the perception will change. So like if you’ve got a dog or a cat, like run this experiment in your own life and see what they don’t. Take my word for it. Run the experiment. See where you’re at two weeks from now. It’s kind of amazing because, you know, the thing is, it’s really good for creativity because normally the brain is dominated by like sort of fear. Right. We’ll take it nine negative bits, a very positive bit that gets through. That’s a normal ratio. All those extra bits, the things that we’re not afraid of, that’s the fodder for opportunity and creativity and innovation and all that stuff that we want. When you start doing this kind of practice, you start changing that ratio again and you’ll start seeing new things. So it ends up being sort of really inspirational and creative becomes a really fucken period creatively because you’ve radically shifted your perception and suddenly you’re getting new information and novel data from the world. And novelty is the birth of all innovation, all creativity. It’s got to start there, right?
Brilliant Miller [00:37:45] That’s really cool. And, you know, just a couple of things I want to reflect back to you that I’m hearing and what you’re sharing that I hope, you know, listeners will kind of hone in on as well, and maybe we’ll serve them too, which is one the awareness that you expanded your awareness to where you could see the hair on Misha’s back. And then so there was awareness, but there was also choice and response to where you changed, what you did, what your habitual response might have been, and therefore you got a different result. So this whole thing is about awareness and choice. And then the other thing I love, a colleague of mine once suggested to me that all healing involves a change in meaning. And I was like, That’s a weird thing to say.
Steven Kotler [00:38:24] That’s a weird thing to say.
Brilliant Miller [00:38:27] But the fact that I would say something like, I’ll treat me like my brother having a bloody and it’s a change in meaning. And in a way, I think there was real healing has taken.
Steven Kotler [00:38:38] I’m not yeah I’m not saying your coach is wrong. I’m just saying I have thought about it that way. I think it’s a smart statement.
Brilliant Miller [00:38:45] Yeah, I was like, That’s interesting. So I’m kind of hearing that too. But again, it’s a choice for you to change the meaning in that of that interaction. And then, of course, those two things, again, the experience changes and the result changes.
Steven Kotler [00:38:59] And in some ways change it back. You don’t like it, you know what I mean? Like. That’s right. None of this stuff is permanent. Our brain is neuro-plastic, right? This is these are experiments you get to run with your own brain.
Brilliant Miller [00:39:11] Yeah. And then when you can treat life like a discovery instead of drudgery or, you know, whatever, that’s really cool. So awesome. Okay. I feel like I mean, I know this is still in the vein of the Devil’s Dictionary and we’re exploring empathy and so forth. But I know we’re coming to the end of our time here together. But let me just ask what haven’t we talked about related to the devil’s dictionary that you want to talk about?
Steven Kotler [00:39:35] It’s interesting. I’m going to pull back from my book that my book is great and everybody should read it. Nothing says Merry Christmas like the Devil’s Dictionary people. But I’m going to pull back and talk about for a second the power of fiction and the powers of novels because I think we so many fewer people are reading novels today. And it’s a shame and it’s a shame from a peak performance empathy perspective. It’s just in line with what we talk about, which is, I would say. If you want to get smarter, nonfiction is a killer. It’s given you facts. You’re learning stuff. It’s phenomenal fiction. So gives you something that you can’t get from the facts, which is perspective. It forces you to go live in another world for a little while, and that actually gives you a perspective from a psychological or biological. Point of view. It’s the foundation of the quality we term wisdom. Wisdom is an actual sort of measurable thing in the brain that we know we’re talking about with it. And the more different perspectives that you can sort of taking in, internalize, hold in your head and be able to think in the wiser, the smarter, the more creative, the more innovative you are also, the more resilient and flexible you can be in the face of challenges. Certainly, it massively increases empathy. And so I just like I’m stupid for fiction in general because I like it. It’s so funny. Is it go like do a lot of people performance training and you know, one of the things that I always tell people do is read more fiction. You have no idea. Like you’re costing yourself by not reading fiction. I, you know, I’m still a little biased towards nonfiction. I’ll probably read 2 to 3 nonfiction books for every novel that I pick up. But I pick up I definitely read the books and I try to read, read widely or around, around the field because I want those new perspectives. It’s just so unbelievably useful. And I think it helps me be like a diverse thinker and a diverse person and you know, those are important things.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:52] Yeah.
Steven Kotler [00:41:52] So now that’s the thing. I think that’s where I could we could maybe talk about weird geeky cyberpunk sci-fi stuff all day long, but I want to do stuff for fiction now.
Brilliant Miller [00:42:04] I appreciate that. And you know, what you’re seeing now, too. Reminds me of something I read in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which explores how the world is actually a safer place than it ever has been. Despite what the news media might say.
Steven Kotler [00:42:19] As you believe it is, we are in the same place never before.
Brilliant Miller [00:42:22] And one of the things he points out is that not just after the printing press, but after the rise of the novel in Victorian England, that, you know, researchers have found that was a time when violent crime and so forth was reduced broadly. And when they were looking into it and they wondered why, one of the conclusions they were led to was that the novel, which allowed us to have other perspectives and to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, what they’ve experienced, what they think and feel that that did rise to, you know, it did result in an increase in compassion in some way. Yeah, that’s always stayed with me. And what about the VR at Stanford? That’s like the next level of that.
Steven Kotler [00:43:03] Yeah, it is the next level of that. The other thing I wanted to say, is you asked me earlier, what do I think is going on in the world. We talked about a list, I want to say one other thing that I’m really seeing because you just mentioned how shrill the media has become. And I don’t disagree. And, you know, my partner, Peter Diamandis, always talks about the Crisis News Network, CNN, and I really filter a lot of my news for that reason. But the one thing that I have seen and I just like came back from a really sort of fun, weird tour of America where I was in places like Cincinnati and Cleveland and all over New Jersey and like, you know, a lot of not the major cities places for. And what I have found consistently over and over and over again, especially over the past 6 to 8 months, is the media may be very, very loud. And there is talk in New York and L.A., you get a lot of like we’re where the media tend to be. There it’s very shrill than most other places. As far as I could tell people I’m meeting are just like, you know what? We’re just, yeah, we have these problems and we’re going to fix them. We’re like, we’re done with the loudness. We’re, we’re much more interested in cooperating, fixing the problem. This is like. And so, like, the reality that’s coming out of the speakers is so different than the reality it’s actually going on in our country. And my friends who are from all over the globe are saying the same things. So, you know, to me, that’s like that’s I like that. I like when people are finally like, you know, enough with this. Like, yes, we know if it bleeds, it leads. And like, like, you know, you’re making more advertising revenue by scaring the shit out of me, but a bunch of us are, like, not useful. Stop it. We’re done. Let’s fix the problems.
Brilliant Miller [00:44:53] Yeah, that’s great. Well, the last few questions I’d love to ask you just because I am curious about the creative process, about writing, and I think people listening are as well. I remember in our last conversation you shared something with me along the lines of every book you write or I don’t know if this were a fiction that at one point there’s at least one point in the process that you end up on the floor in tears.
Steven Kotler [00:45:20] Let’s be clear. Let’s emphasize this. It’s usually face down in tears, punching the ground. And it’s usually the like stupidity of punching the ground, like the pain that sort of pulls it back. And I have to say, the funny story told with this, I thought I was nuts. I literally thought I was no, I wouldn’t tell anybody about this because no one wants to talk to you. And then I heard this interview with the late, great David Foster Wallace just before he passed, and he says something like, you know, every time I write a book, I find myself one day like face down on the ground, punching the floor. And I was like, See, it’s not just me. You’re not the only mad man.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:00] Yeah. Was that the case for this, too? Is that in your experience in fiction or is this somehow different?
Steven Kotler [00:46:05] I know I didn’t. I don’t think so. I will say I’ve gotten in over the past five years. It’s not that the feelings don’t happen, that I now know what’s coming. So rather than getting like all that, I can get sort of right to the solution. This book, I will tell you. Though you would never know it from reading this book. This is the most writerly technical book I’ve ever written. Like I did so much of that work that you can’t see it in the book, but. It is a, you probably noticed about the plot. There are some way-out ideas. There is some really like big action story, crazy things happens. A lot of fun. But when you’re doing stuff like that, plot discipline, like you have to know where you’re starting and where you’re going. Tangents are not your friend like because stuff is so crazy as is. Every time you introduce a tangent, you’re like, This is something you’ve got to wrap up later. And when you’re plot’s really tight and big at all that stuff, you got to be really, it’s really difficult. And you have to like do a bunch of stuff to keep things moving. And as a thriller, you wouldn’t know this, but there’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work in thrillers. For example, a lot of internal monologue does. It slows down thrillers. You can have a lot of exposition, but you need it in the dialog. Much more novels that are slower do it internally. But when you’re moving and you want to move people through a story and have them really engage in turning pages, you have to do a bunch of stuff in dialog and weave doing stuff and dialogs with. That’s freeing, but there are limits also. People got to say, and it’s got to be believable. And you can’t have if you suddenly have your character go, a four-page soliloquy about like Moby Dick like that. That’s going to bore the shit out of you, you know what I mean? Like, there’s there are rules for that stuff, even though I might like a four-page soliloquy about Moby Dick.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:09] Yeah, how about that? How did the process of this unfold? Like, how do you structure your time? And is it different from writing fiction to nonfiction? Do you find, like, certain habits and routines are critical?
Steven Kotler [00:48:23] I actually stuck to my knowledge, I tried to stick to my saving habits. I was doing a lot of other stuff. So like my morning writing session, I always read for 4 hours every morning and then twice a week, two afternoons a week. I work with an editor all afternoon. We’ll do other stuff and then I’ll add in other writing sessions. One of the things that like. Fiction can be really fun. So, like, sometimes it was hard not to write too much to like, sort of burn myself out because, like, it gets fun in there because you’re never quite sure what can like even when your plot is when your characters do shit that surprises you not having you like, Oh wow, really? Or you write something, you’re like, Oh, crap, what does that actually mean? Like, if that’s true in this world, what, you know, stuff like that. And that’s like you get excited on your own. Like you’re sort of like, Oh my God, look at this. You know what I mean? Like, one of the reasons I think you create any world and definitely sci fi is like you’re curious about stuff and you create a world. You put characters in that world. Right. I wanted a world where all the technology in our world today had been world for 15 years and big environmental challenges have been solved. But once I created that world and was living in that world, I was like, Oh, wow. So this is what it’s going to be like when AR and VR and crypto and like, all these things are like everywhere at a real sort of common level. Do you know what I mean? And like that stuff gets delicious. And I Hemmingway a lot of people have always taught with writing that like you want to sort of quit for the day when you’re most excited so that the next day you come back and you’re like, fired up to start and that. That was sort of like there was some force there where I had to like I had to discipline, like, oh, this is so cool. Oh, wait, you’re really excited. You should pause now so you can really dive back into more of the front end of your writing session. So there was some of that too, which is unusual. But yeah, that was different with this book.
Brilliant Miller [00:50:33] And it really does help, right? Because it’s not only that you end before you burned out and you have some gas in the morning, but you also know right. Where do you want to pick it up?
Steven Kotler [00:50:42] That’s exactly right. Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so you can I always start by editing what I wrote the day before. So I get some pattern recognition, familiarity with the language, and a little bit of the focus on neurochemistry flow. And then when I do face the blank page, you know exactly where I am and I know like it. I feel it usually like you get to that line, you’re like, Oh, the excitement sort of comes back gone, you know what I mean? And that’s great for focus and attention, all that stuff as well.
Brilliant Miller [00:51:09] Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, the last thing I’ll ask you here is just, you know, Stephen Pressfield in the War of art, talks about resistance, and about how pretty much all creatives in some form or fashion encounter resistance. Some people call it writer’s block, some people call it inertia, you know, whatever. Did you encounter resistance at any point? And if so, what? How did you overcome it?
Steven Kotler [00:51:32] In Devil’s Dictionary? Yeah. So I did not encounter to tell you if there is a very large multi-character fight scene set. Almost like three-quarters of the way through the book. Now, if you know anything about sportswriting, you know that this in sports that make the best stories are slow and have single players. Golf makes really good writing because like, it’s really easy to follow one person around the golf course. Baseball is next up on the list because its players run the bases and you can do it. Football is really difficult. Finding great football writing or hockey writing is almost impossible because there are so many things happening at once. So the first time I wrote the fight scene with I don’t know how many characters are involved, but there are a bunch. It was like. 27 pages long or subset, just like all the things that happened in it. Like I think in the book it’s probably five or six pages long and it’s a long fight scene. So like, there was this thing that I remember what I called up by. So the good thing about working with the same editor and being very close friends with him is we’ve worked together for 25 years, and when I’m writing really badly, Michael just loses his temper because it’s happened like he doesn’t like it. That happens and usually and when it’s really bad, he’ll find himself angry before he realizes he’s even angry. And like, he was just like, you know, this is shit, dude. What you do, like, you know, have this kind of bag. And I was what? I was embarrassed because he was right. And I knew it was giant. And I was like. And so the battle, the turn. Those 27 pages or whatever it is. And this was on a Tuesday and our next editing session was on a Friday, and I was hell-bent on redeeming myself. And I literally couldn’t stop working. I didn’t stop. I think I slept for like 4 hours, one night, 2 hours the next night. But I literally, like I was so committed to getting it right. And I knew like I was so big about it was like, if you walk away from this, it’s going to break you. It’s to like, solve it, solve it, solve it, know it’s like, yeah, that was, that was and a lot of yeah, that was the big one. That was the one that was the one. That’s where I would have ended up a couple of years ago. I would have ended up punching the floor. Right. And instead, I was just like vowed I going to fix this. But like, yeah, it took a lot of work.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:23] Wow. And there, too, is that idea again along the lines of it’s often harder to write a short letter than a long letter. Yeah. There you are. So awesome. Well, any final advice? Encouragement, instruction, and request of people listening.
Steven Kotler [00:54:39] Speak to each other. It’s hard out there right now. Let’s just be good to each other.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:45] Awesome. Thank you, though. The very, very last thing I’ll just share with you is, as with our previous interview, I wanted some way to express gratitude to you for sharing generously of your time and your experience. So one way of endeavoring to express that is I’ve gone on kiva.org. I made $100 microloans to a woman named Jacqueline, who’s in Rwanda. She’s going to use this money to actually build a place, a refuge for refugees. It’s already in process. Oh.
Steven Kotler [00:55:14] Yeah, so that’s cool. Send me the kiva link. Like I’ll match your $100. We’ll give her another hundred dollars so we can have a bigger rescue. Send me the link.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:23] Awesome.
Steven Kotler [00:55:24] I will. We’ll do it. Let’s see. Let’s see what good we can do to Rwanda today.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:28] Okay. Well, Steven, thank you so much again. The latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary, is a novel. I hope you pick it up and enjoy it as much as I am. And with that, I look forward to the next time we talk.
Steven Kotler [00:55:41] Thank you, sir. It’s great seeing you again.
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