Desires Are Blowin' in the Wind
The revelation of Thin Desires—and how 30 Days of Beauty may help root them out.
First, a quick update: There were nearly 100 RSVP’s for the seminar I hosted on February 24th on Core Motivational Drive with Dr. Joshua Miller. It was a packed Zoom. Thanks to everyone who attended for an engaging session. I’ve posted the recording on our community Discord server in the #virtual-events channel, which is available 24/7 to premium subscribers.
The Leaves and The Roots
“The problem with the modern world is that a man can live his entire life without ever really knowing whether or not he is a coward.”
—A sentence I first ran across in Running and Being by Dr. George Sheehan, I believe. I don’t have it handy so I can’t look it up; I’m quoting from memory. (Currently sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of an empty house, pending the arrival of our new furniture. I’m accessing my library the old-fashioned way…)
Soon we may no longer have this ‘modern’ problem as the world reverts to more traditional battles that make social media outrage and cancellations seem as silly as they really are.
I’ll come back to this idea shortly—the idea that most people experience a ‘lack of revelation’ about themselves—because it directly relates to the topic of thick and thin desires.
How a person reveals their desires—but first, and more importantly, how their desires are revealed to them—is of critical importance. It happens everyday in big and small ways.
We normally don’t even realize it’s happening.
Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos, had the idea to pay new hires to leave the company once they completed their orientation but before they started their full-time work. Each of them would be offered the sum of what eventually grew to be thousands of dollars—simply to leave.
Some of them took the cash and ran.
The idea was that whatever money Zappos paid these people to quit would be far less than the money they would have wasted keeping someone on board who wasn’t fully engaged and committed.
This tactic was covered endlessly in business media as a way to weed out those people who were not ‘culture fits’. That’s partly true. There’s more to it, though.
Tony once told me that the ‘offer’ was originally intended as a social experiment that would generate positive PR for the company (he knew how to play the media like a fiddle) and attract more of the right applicants. And in that respect, the plan worked brilliantly.
The more I have thought about it, though, the more I realize what the cash offer was really doing at the most fundamental level: it was helping to reveal to people what they really wanted.
The people with a desire to work for Zappos thicker than the $3,000 they were offered were the ones who stayed and made important contributions to the company. Those with thin desires for the work were blown away (almost literally) by the money.
The human will does what it wants, not what we think it wants.
If you want to know what you really want, simply look at what you actually do, and the way you spend your time.
The people who took the money might say they really wanted to work at Zappos, but actions speak louder than words. If $3k is all it took for them to leave, they didn’t really want to be there.
I’ve come to believe this: all of us need some kind of wedge—whether it comes naturally, or whether we have to make one—to find out what it is we really want. Something to force the issue. Something to show us who we really are.
The line keeps coming back to me:
“The problem with the modern world is that a man can live his entire life and never really know whether or not he is a coward.”
If present conditions don’t give us an opportunity for heroism—or to find out whether or not you’re living according to the law of your own thin desires—you simply have to create them.
Life is too short not to know what you’re made of, and what you really want.
Wedge Events and Revelation
What’s a wedge? It’s a revelatory event, meeting, or confrontation with a desire that brings its true nature to light—like being offered a certain amount of money to give something up; or having a great opportunity that is completely dependent on the letting go of a thin desire—with real (and very costly) consequences for not doing so.
Porn is the quintessential example of a thin desire. And hardly anyone who is addicted to it ever experiences a wedge.
That’s partly because it operates in the darkness; it allows consumers to indulge their thin desires in the faint glow of their laptop screens, in the privacy of their rooms.
The proof of porn’s thinness is in the rapidity with which a consumed scene or film is discarded like trash as the consumer goes in search of the next titillation. Everything is made to be used and then thrown away, and real relationships begin to become modeled on this same dynamic. Porn helps create a throwaway culture.
Let me share a brief story. One of the entrepreneurs that I mentored many years ago (I was in my post-Zappos deal blow-up phrase of exploration; he was fresh out of college) was courageous enough to share with me the shame he felt at wasting several hours/week consuming pornographic content even while he was trying to get his startup off the ground. (These are the kinds of open and honest conversations that more entrepreneurs need to have, so I have the utmost respect for this kid.)
[Shame: it’s the most pervasive emotion and quality of being in the corporate world largely because it’s mimetic. People feel shame because other people feel shame. For not working past 8pm, or not dressing the right way—or some other ridiculous standard that has been artificially introduced and then mimetically reinforced. The shame factor is especially prevalent among entrepreneurs who never feel like they’re doing enough—who measure themselves according to the Twitter-brained hustlers who announce all of their funding rounds with threads. But now back to our man who was indulging himself almost nightly with a soul-sucking addiction.]
What was really going on with him?
First off, let me say this: there are serious neurological adaptations that happen when someone starts watching porn from a young age. Synapse pathways are rerouted. And there is an extremely strong biological urge underlying this particular movement of sexual desire—it is not purely mimetic, like the decision to buy MSCHF’s “Illegal Chips”…
To break this kind of addiction requires a multi-pronged approach, and I don’t pretend that everyone can simply break it through a re-wiring of mimetic desire alone.
Yet that’s essentially what happened with this young entrepreneur.
The first thing I did was recommend that he read two of Alice Miller’s books, which have been highly influential in my own life: The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search of the True Self, and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child. They are required reading for any parent.
But for adults seeking to understand their own lives better, these books are effective at revealing hidden trauma that can bring about emotional adaptations that persist later in life. Children are very often used to plug the emotional gaps in their parents’ lives—a vicious cycle of emotional abuse which, if not seen clearly for what it is, continues to be propagated in families.
Next we talked about the male propensity to externalize inner pain by acting out in various ways. We talked about the importance of being able to do things like take very long walks—alone—simply feeling sad or lonely. (This, by the way, is one of the many reasons I continually and quixotically advocate for the idea that everyone should try to take at least one silent retreat per year.
But the real kicker—the thing that really seemed to lead him to a breakthrough—was the intentional construction of a wedge that would make the thin desires of quick satisfaction stand in stark contrast to something else. This was paired with massive incentives for cultivating thicker desires and negative consequences for indulging thinner ones—particularly, the consuming of porn.
The deal was straightforward. Each day, he was tasked with the mission of encountering and engaging in something truly beautiful: being exposed to a Mahler symphony; going on a breathtaking local hike; a trip to the MET; a silent meal at one of the best restaurants in the city to savor and think about the food. The list went on. I tailored it to the individual.
But the deal was simple: I would set the curriculum and slate of experiences (which offered the element of surprise) that would expose him to at least 30 different, objectively beautiful things over the course of one month. And I would pay for those experience that carried a cost. (Most, it turns out, were free—they just required some effort.)
He, in turn, promised radical honesty: if he watched porn, the deal was off. No more daily missions of beauty, and no more support. And if I found out he was lying (and we devised some ways for me to check and safeguard, using software and a weekly laptop check), we were also done. In other words, the experiences of true beauty were not standing in direct contrast to and competing with the experiences of short-term subjective satisfaction.
It turns out that the constant exposure to beauty—which are rooted in thick desires, because beauty is itself a transcendent desire of every human being—begins to make the thin desires look increasingly silly or at least less appetizing as time goes on. It’s almost like radiation treatment.
In the normal economy of desires, I found that there is a kind of Gresham’s Law (in finance, this means that “bad money drives out the good”) in which bad desires drive out the good ones.
It’s necessary to reverse this with an intentional and sacrificial effort. That often involves entrusting oneself into the hands of another, or becoming part of a group of people who will work to foster the thick desires and starve the thin ones.
This is why I have been seriously considering curating a 90-day journey done in a group setting which helps those who participate identify, discern, and cultivate the desires that are worthy of pursuit.
Every desire, whether it’s thin or thick, tells us something important about ourselves. The problem is stopping too soon and assuming it tells us the whole story. That’s where the shame comes in. The porn my friend was watching is not what he really wanted. It didn’t define him. He wanted more; he just didn’t take the time to look beyond it. It was merely a signpost, pointing to a deeper desire for friendship and communion.
Follow desires ‘till the end. Don’t stop at what’s easy or expedient.
Follow them to the end, and you’ll find something thick—and by thick I mean deep, lasting, enduring, insatiable, fulfilling—waiting for you.
The leaves blow in the wind. The roots remain.
Two Closing Notes:
Emails: I’m getting more emails than I can respond to in a timely manner these days. Unless your question is personal or you don’t want an answer to be shared with others, would you please consider posting in the comments rather than emailing me directly?
Are you interested in participating in a small group educational experience with some other subscribers? If so, please email me (and my team)—if you haven’t already done so—at email@example.com. I have a 90-day experience in mind that I’d like to begin putting together with a group of roughly 16 dedicated people.