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April 2010


This week celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that alien life almost certainly exists, and humans should do everything we can to avoid contact with it.

He reasons that contact with aliens would probably be fatal to us, likening it to the European conquest of the New World:

“If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans. […] We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Ouch. I’m not sure why I was so surprised to hear this point of view from Dr. Hawking.

I suppose, in the absence of any actual information about alien species, my entire concept of them is built from movies and TV shows. In those shows, aliens tend to do one of two things: extend a gesture of cosmic friendship and love, or violently abduct/dissect/probe us and vaporize our cities. I always thought the movies that portrayed aliens as senseless killers (Independence Day comes to mind) were not as “realistic” as ones in which the aliens strike some sort of rapport with us humble homo sapiens (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

One ridiculous feature of movie aliens is that they almost always look something like us — bipeds with eyes, nose (or at least nostrils) and mouth. Sometimes they add some slime or mucous to make them a bit more foreign. These depictions are dazzlingly unimaginitive — it’s really incredible how we can’t seem to let go of the idea that sentient aliens would just be “men from outer space.” Truth is stranger than fiction, and since we have no real knowledge of extra-terrestrial life, we have no starting point for imagining them, other than ourselves.

But that’s movies, and I guess I never really thought one of the world’s top scientific minds would conclude that aliens would indeed try to kill us if they had the chance.

It made me think: is that what humans would do with aliens if we found them? Sure, we’ve destroyed all sorts of terrestrial species (usually without trying) and sure, we destroy our own kind on a regular basis, but I think humanity at large would regard an alien encounter as an opportunity to connect, rather than conquer.

No, I don’t think we’d be as cold-blooded with our galactic neighbors as Hawking believes they would be with us. For all the nasty things humans can do, there is an earnest quality in us that respects life and wants to see it do its thing. We are fascinated to witness rare earth animals in their natural habitats, and I think we’d be more likely to value and study alien life than to barbecue it. Read More

candle flame

Recently I hinted at a huge goal I’m working on. It’s been on my mind for a few years now, but two weeks ago it graduated from wishy-washy “dream” status to concrete “goal” status.

In previous articles, I’ve made clear what I think about supporting myself by working for an employer. Having been at the mercy of the fickle and disorganized kiwifruit industry for my income for two months, I’m remembering how strongly I yearn to be free of arrangements where somebody else decides when I work and don’t work, how much money I can make, and what I can wear, say, or do at work. I no longer want to have sell my weekdays to somebody else’s purpose.

By my 31st birthday, I will be completely self-employed. That’s less than 18 months from today. Mark it on your calendar: I will cease to be an employee by October 8, 2011, and I will never get a job again.

I know I can do it a lot sooner than that, but 18 months will give me the option of maintaining a more-than-decent lifestyle in the mean time. I always knew I wanted this, but I did not actually believe it was within reach until a recent insight made it clear that I can pull it off in a relatively short time-frame. I’ll explain what that insight is below.

Now, I have made similar “Okay things will change from this day forth” resolutions before. Typically, I come up with a thrilling new project, and enthusiasm mushrooms until it has crowded out all my other concerns of the moment — like that afternoon I became infatuated with the idea of tracing my family tree. I dropped everything I was doing and lost myself in dozens of blogs and articles about genealogy. By 8pm I was quite over it, content again to sit on it for a few years. But at 4pm it still felt like I was turning a giant page in life, undertaking this huge, rewarding project.

That same jilted-project pattern should have happened with this blog, too. I could have just as easily devoured Problogger articles for a few days, registered a domain name and written half an article, only to drop it all and start something else when the initial excitement faded.

That “honeymoon period” for new projects always fades. You need something to keep it moving after that. Willpower might work for a while, but it’s not sustainable either. Read More


There is a pile of filthy pots and pans in the corner of the kitchen, and it’s tearing us apart.

For six weeks I have been living in a hostel in Te Puke, New Zealand, the kiwifruit capital of the world. Te Puke is not a tourist attraction, so travelers generally only come here to spend a month or two working in the orchards, then they hit the road again. This means there is very little accommodation in town, because it is difficult to make a hostel pay for itself with virtually no tourism.

I am staying in a bunkhouse at the edge of town, with about 30 other long-term guests. Because the turnover is low for a hostel, friendships have time to form and there is a warm social vibe among the guests. But a tense relationship exists between us and the owners, and it has something to do with cookware. Read More


You are young and life is long
And there is time to kill today
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun

~Pink Floyd, “Time”

Something big is brewing. Life has been telegraphing this particular development for a while now, but last week I was smacked with a stroke of clarity about it, and now it is happening.

I am undertaking a massive goal. It’s the biggest goal I’ve ever had. I have no doubts I will complete it, on time, and that it will change my life dramatically. I’ll save the details of it for an upcoming post, because the whole thing hinges on my ability to overcome one of my lifelong weaknesses. This experiment is the first step towards my huge goal.

You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of posts about personal productivity here on Raptitude. I do write about how to improve your quality of life in all sorts of ways, but I am no authority on getting things done in a timely manner. There are 14 posts in the archives tagged with the topic “Productivity” but they are only peripherally related.

When it comes to personal productivity, I blow. I have had so much spare time this last three weeks that I could have written twenty articles and a book of limericks, but I was able to squander nearly all that time, and just get my bare-bones tasks done. This latest mismanaged stretch of free time is typical.

I am not lazy. That isn’t the problem. I never sleep in, I don’t watch TV, I don’t play video games, I don’t get horizontal on couches. I love doing. I have loads of exciting projects ready to go, and I want to work on them. But I am highly conditioned to get very little purposeful work done. The fact that this website even exists is a small miracle. My inefficiency is so consistent it’s almost comical. Read More

books of awesome

I don’t remember which Awesome Thing it was that StumbleUpon spat out at me that day — When you get the milk-to-cereal ratio just right maybe — but I stopped Stumbling right there.

This was an interesting site. I browsed the archives, and couldn’t believe what I saw. This man knew me! Every page was something I personally found to be awesome. The smell of rain on a hot sidewalk. Multitasking while brushing your teeth. The sound of a solid crack from a good break in billiards.

How did he know? Or had everybody else silently been enjoying these curious blessings too? If so, why did nobody mention them?

Well, Neil Pasricha mentioned them on 1000 Awesome Things, and the internet rejoiced.

Exactly why we all find it so gratifying to pull a huge gob of lint out of the dryer trap is still mysterious and fascinating to me, and that’s why I’m such a fan. Neil has a keen eye for the unassuming little miracles that bring us all together.

As of today, Neil’s Awesome Things are now in printed form, as The Book of Awesome.

Back in February he and I decided to hold a contest. Send in a question you’d like to ask Neil, and the ones that get chosen get a free, signed copy of The Book of Awesome. I interview Neil with those questions and publish it here on Raptitude.

Well the questions were awesome indeed. And some stellar responses from Neil. Maybe it’s just me, but they seem to hint at something bigger than just celebrity baby names or all-day bedhead.

Thanks to everyone who entered. The winners have been contacted, and here is the interview: Read More

chair in the desert

I think it’s really helpful to forget you exist, and often.

It sounds impossible, but it can be done.

Here’s an exercise I do sometimes to achieve that perspective:

Wherever I am, whatever location I am in, I picture the situation exactly as it would be if I wasn’t there. I just watch it like it’s a movie, and the people still in the scene are the actors. Or maybe there’s nobody around at all, it’s just an empty corner of the world sharing a moment with itself. Whatever the scene, it feels like I’m watching it remotely from some far-off theater. It’s all still happening, but I’m not there.

I absorb myself in the details of how it looks and sounds. The characters’ tones of voice, their gestures, the room around them, the background noise. I can let it be whatever it is without any apprehension, because I’m not there, so I have no means — or reason — to stop it or control it, or to wish it was different.

And something amazing happens: all of my concerns and interests just disappear. I watch the moment unfold however it pleases. No part of me is invested in the moment, it just becomes whatever it wills to be, and it doesn’t matter what happens. The effect is exhilarating and liberating. It seems to be quite a miracle that there is even something happening at all. And it’s always, always beautiful.

Think of it as dying on purpose.

Imagine you just died, right now. All of your responsibilities, relationships, plans and worries would vanish like they were never even real, and the world would go on perfectly fine without your input, just like it did before you existed. It’s nothing personal, just the plain truth.

Your hopes and worries never mattered anyway. They only appeared to be so critical because while you were alive you had the insidious (but normal) human habit of seeing things only insofar as they relate to you and your interests. Read More


Done. My campaign to go 21 consecutive days without complaining or gossiping is finally over, and what I discovered surprised me.

To recap, the experiment was to cease complaining or gossiping for twenty-one straight days, as long as that took. If I complained, I started the count again from zero. The idea was inspired by the book A Complaint Free World, by Will Bowen. The original post is here.

I cruised through the first week complaint-free, then cracked on my eighth day. I had to restart four times in total. My last screwup was on the eighteenth consecutive day, within 72 hours of finishing.

It took a total of 55 days. Read More

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