What You Can Learn from a Cartoonist’s Approach to Life’s Big Questions

“I’m always trying to imagine what this looks like from above, from someone in the future looking back in history, or me looking back on my life.“

Scott Barry Kaufman, professor, researcher, and author of Wired To Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, is one of the nation’s leading experts on the science of creativity. He recently hosted Tim Urban, the writer behind the super-popular, long-form, stick-figure-illustrated blog Wait But Why, on The Psychology Podcast for a conversation about the nature of creativity, what makes us unique, and how to be insufferable on Facebook.

Scott: Your writing tends to have deep, existential themes. You find it useful to take the very long-term approach, as opposed to freaking out in the moment. You like to stretch the perspective out as far as possible, even to infinity in one of your posts. Is that accurate?

Tim: Yeah. When you zoom out, you can see what’s going on a lot better. I tried to figure out how they made maps back in the 1500s—they’re just sailing around coastlines. The coastline looks so big and amorphous when you’re next to it. How can you possibly sketch out a real picture of what the whole thing looks like? If you can take a satellite picture, it would be a lot easier.

I’m always trying to take a satellite picture. The challenge is the thing you’re often taking a picture of—you—isn’t up on the satellite view. You’re next to the coast. The perspective that you’ll have in 20 years, you don’t have that right now, but you want to try to imagine what that perspective will be. I’m always trying to imagine what this looks like from above, from someone in the future looking back in history, or me looking back on my life.

Scott: But you still have to live life on a day-to-day basis. If I start, in my day-to-day life, thinking too much about, “What’s the point of this moment?” even if I’m falling in love, it’s like, “All of this is going to be gone.” What would it be like to walk around every day of your life taking this long-term existential perspective? Would that be conducive to well being?

Tim: It depends. There’s an argument for every level. Being completely zoomed in sometimes is a very peaceful place to be. You don’t have to think about anything. Kids are always zoomed in. It’s really nice being seven: you’re unbelievably excited that it’s Friday and you get to go to a movie with your friend. There’s something blissful about that. It’s very hard for adults to get there.

We are at least one big notch zoomed out from that at all times as adults, and I don’t think that’s a very happy place to be, because you don’t have the bliss of being totally present, but you don’t have the big picture either, so you sweat the small stuff a lot. When you go another level out, you can get to a wiser place, where it’s like, “This is all part of life. It’s all going to be fine,” and try to focus on what matters in your life and relationships.

But then you go a little beyond that, and you’re like, “None of this really matters. We’re all going to die, and this is all going to disappear.” You get to an upsetting place. But you can go even one level more zoomed out, to the place where you’re like, “Even that doesn’t matter. Death is just an object of my consciousness. Death itself isn’t scary. I’m just a bunch of vibrating atoms in this energy field.” I think Buddhism is the highest zoom-out you can get to, and that to me is a very peaceful place.

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Scott: Do you meditate at all?

Tim: I do sometimes, and then I [get] obsessed with it. I’m like, “I’m going to do this every day. This is obviously good.” Then I do it the next day, and I’m like, “This is amazing.” And then I don’t do it for 42 days after that.

Scott: Is that, in general, how you live your life?

Tim: Yeah, I get in a real honeymoon phase with something. I’m sure I want to do it forever, and then I don’t, even though it really was a good thing, and making me happy. It’s just hard for me to build new habits and break old ones.

“I’m incredibly internally motivated, but I’m not internally disciplined. The external pressure is what pushes me to be disciplined.”

Scott: That makes your career perfect. You can get these bursts of inspiration, put your all into it, write a post, get it out there, and then move to another topic.

Tim: I do like that component, but also just having readers, having an expectation that I’m going to be writing, allows me to not quit blogging. If there were no readers, and I were working on a huge, epic book, I don’t know if I would have written as much as I have in the last three years. I might have stopped after a month. I’m incredibly internally motivated, but I’m not internally disciplined. The external pressure is what pushes me to be disciplined.

 

Scott: [There are] some things that you’ve written about that I want to discuss: one was a post where you had people choose IQ, EQ, or grit. I posted this on my Facebook wall, and people who are experts in the psychometrics of these topics were having a whole discussion you set off with this question, like, “He assumes that the heritability coefficients are the same among these three.”

Tim: Oh my God. I got myself into deep waters there.

If that were a full post, I would have interviewed a couple psychologists, read a couple of books, and would have been speaking the right lingo more. This was literally just a conversation I’d had on text with two friends. I said, “This is interesting. Let me publish it this week.” I don’t think it was ready for primetime on the psychology boards yet.

Scott: It is an interesting question: why just those three? Why didn’t you include creativity, for instance?

Tim: Creativity is a factor, but I think creativity is more how you reason than it is an innate talent. A lot of us who feel not creative, we just stopped exercising that muscle when we were five—we have the creativity trained out of us by school telling us to obey. I think creativity is just getting to reasoning from first principles, always assuming the conventional wisdom or your initial assumptions about something may not be the best way. You can’t do that all the time; it’s not efficient. But [when] you can think like that, all this creativity bursts out.

The problem with that is that grit is also kind of a learned thing—

Scott: Well, that’s not true, but a lot of people think that. The research actually shows that grit is correlated very highly with the personality trait conscientiousness and has the same heritability coefficient as IQ. Both IQ and grit are about equally environmentally determined and genetically influenced. It’s just another personality trait. In fact, all of the personality traits probably have the same heritability coefficients, or mix of both nature and nurture.

Tim: The more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t really understand nature/nurture. It’s not intuitive. Nurture’s a big deal, but I hear about all this stuff that goes back to your nature. In other ways, people can attribute too much the other way: things are assumed to be just who you are when, actually, it was based on formative experiences. I would need to study a lot more to understand that.

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Scott: That would make a great Wait But Why post. Another thing [is that] I’m wondering how you reconcile these two posts: “Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think of You,” and “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook.” People who were, in my view, being authentic, you make fun of them [in] the “Seven Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook” post. You upset a lot of people with that post. What do you think was going on? What did you trigger in them?

“The Internet is the Wild West of social life. There’s no etiquette yet, and these traits that would be appalling if they happened in person just come out.”

Tim: I wrote the ‘Facebook’ post six months before Wait But Why started, at a time when I was anonymous and trying to get attention. There’s an element there of trying to go viral that made it significantly less empathetic than I normally would be.

The mammoth post I believe fully with my heart is the way we should be thinking. The mammoth is the little character I assigned to the part of our brains that thinks it’s in a tribe in 50,000 BC where it absolutely must get along with people. It must fit in. It must be liked. It can’t be rejected. It can’t stand the concept of a little clique forming and talking trash about you behind your back. It feels great, on the other hand, to be on the other side of that clique. That makes sense in 50,000 BC because your tribe was everything. Today, that’s not the case, but the mammoth is still there.

The part of that [Facebook] post that was criticizing authenticity because it’s annoying—that’s not fair, and today I wouldn’t have had that take. I might have made fun of those people, but I’ve been those people. We all have.

What I would have focused on if I wrote it today is the concept that, in the real world, we have a lot of etiquette, a lot of norms. Some of it’s unnecessary, but a lot of it is there for good reason. We don’t openly brag and talk about ourselves for an hour straight to someone without asking any questions.

The Internet is the Wild West of social life. There’s no etiquette yet, and these traits that would be appalling if they happened in person just come out: the cliché YouTube comments that are nasty, insulting, and personal. The stuff I’m criticizing on Facebook is un-self-aware, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. A lot of it is the mammoth at his worst. The mammoth is totally in charge of you when you’re on Facebook, obsessing over public image crafting.

Scott: Couldn’t one make the case that you’re actually arguing for more image crafting? Let’s say I read your post, and I think, “Oh, my gosh. That is 100% what I do on Facebook. Now I’m going to start over-thinking every post.” There’s a deeper question here between authenticity versus image crafting, and what is the optimal level of authenticity.social

What you’re really saying is that we’re acting selfish? We’re not being narcissists, because that has a very clinical [definition]. All of us have those needs. Where in the world can we get those needs [fulfilled]? It seems like Facebook is a safe space amongst friends to get that out.

Tim: Absolutely. In the safe space regard, I think Facebook is a good thing, and I don’t agree with my own post on being critical of people for that.

I don’t feel bad about criticizing [things] like humble-bragging. We all have [done it]. I still sometimes catch myself. I interviewed Elon Musk, and instead of just being like, “Hey, how cool is that?” I humble-bragged that I was in my pajamas walking around, “I can’t believe I’m talking to this guy.”

Scott: Was that a humblebrag right there by telling me that story?

Tim: It might have been. I’m in a humblebrag-ception right now. This is a disaster.

The point is, that’s the exact kind of thing that happens on social media that happens less in the real world. It’s rampant on social media because we’re less self-aware versions of ourselves. And that, I unapologetically criticize.

Scott: I hear you. You really do like the big questions. Something I’m fascinated with, [when] doing neuroscience studies, is that you’re left with a profound [sense of], “Well, is that all there is to us?” When I look at a brain scan in my hand, I’m like, “Is this the person?” It’s a profound question, and you’ve covered it from various angles: body theory, brain theory, and thought experiments. Let’s talk about one of the thought experiments: the body scattering test.

Tim: If you actually look at what a human is, it’s just a large collection of atoms in a certain arrangement. The body scattering test says, “What if you could take all those atoms and scatter them into a space, so suddenly you were vaporized?”

Then a wizard tells the atoms, “Back to where you were,” and they come back. When you’re poofed out, are you dead? Are you alive? Do you exist in that moment? When the atoms form you again, is that still you? That person probably would act like you, would have all your memories, because memories are just an arrangement of atoms in your brain. You’d say, “Wow. That was weird,” walk out, and head on with your day. The question is, did someone die and now there’s this new being that thinks it’s you and is a clone, or is that still you? When you do these thought experiments, you start to realize that it’s not obvious what the self actually is.

If you replaced each part of your body, one by one, when do you hit the point where you’re not you anymore? If you replace every brain cell, one by one, with someone else’s, when does it change over? The thing that is most crazy to me is that someone can lose half of their brain and still be themselves and living and okay. There are examples of this: the other half of your brain compensates.

That makes me think, [what if] you removed half of someone’s brain, they were still themselves, and put half of person A’s brain into person B? Now person A has the left half of his original brain, and person B has the right half of person A’s brain as his only brain. Are they clones? It’s super weird.

Scott: This is how I like to think of it: the self is an illusion. Technically, I have no atoms in common [with me] when I was six years old. There is a version of me that is actually dead forever. And I’m not mourning that six-year-old.

Tim: You’re a lot closer to being me than you are to being your five-year-old self.

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Scott: Absolutely. Our whole construction of self is an illusion so that we don’t go crazy, and keep some continuity there. The thing that seems to make us feel most like ourselves—even when we get dementia, start losing our memories, if our IQ lowers—is our morality. Once we start impulsively doing things that go against our value system, that cuts at the core of what it means to feel like we’re unique in this world.

Tim: There seems to be some inner sense, consciousness, behind all of those things that is the real you, and that’s the thing that I can’t pin down to any physical system. I can’t figure out where that is and how you lose it or preserve it.

But I feel like a smarter species, even us in 50 years, might. Aristotle thought that your intelligence was located in your heart. It seems crazy, but I can see them looking back and thinking, “Wow. They didn’t get what consciousness was back in the 21st century.”