Think of the most formidable, permanent thing you can possibly imagine. Perhaps you conjured images of a large stone building? The brand Coca-Cola? The universe itself?
Welp, buildings are physical objects that are subject to both forces of nature and flippant predilections of grubby real estate developers. Brands die when all the people that experienced them do. Even the universe will eventually become a cold dead place devoid of all energy and life.
This post is about why accepting and embracing death is the best thing a creative person can do to boost their happiness and build a more enriching life.
So, the other week I built a sandcastle at the beach with some good friends (because I am an 8 year old and I love making sandcastles). We intentionally built it near the edge of the incoming tides, to create a bit of a plotline for our activity. The goal was to use our creativity and engineering prowess to make the castle stand up against the tides for as long as possible.
First, we erected the castle itself. Then, we toiled away creating a healthy wall around our small castle, complete with an elaborate moat system designed to wick away water. It was a pretty fun experience, and since I’m writing a heady Medium post about it there is clearly an insight here worth expressing.
Eventually we grew tired of throwing good sand atop bad, as the waves eroded more and more of our efforts at an ever faster clip. The Board of Directors of Sandcastle Inc. thereby elected to leave the castle to fend for itself against the big scary Atlantic. As our sagging monolith slowly succumbed to the waves, we strolled over to the boardwalk to drink really cheap beer and watch the lemmings play Pokemon Go.
Within 20 minutes or so, that castle was totally washed away. At that point it became impossible for anyone to ever know that there ever was a quaint little sandcastle there. No one else will ever know how long it lived, why it was made, or the names of the people who made it. That group of friends and I can certainly think back and recall that we made this castle, but eventually even this collective memory will be imperfectly recalled, transmogrify, and fade away.
Speaking of cheap beer, about four months ago I was at a friend’s house party. There were about 20 humans there, and one of those humans was the angsty younger sister of said friend’s roommate. That sister had brought her ‘rock band’ to this party, and they were playing some ‘music’ in the main room of the house for the ‘enjoyment’ of the partygoers.
I can honestly say that this was by far the most unpleasant auditory stimulus that I’ve encountered in recent memory. The shrills of her Squire Stratocaster and chalkboard exploding vocals made the fragile hairs of my basilar membranes commit group seppuku. It was really quite dreadful.
So naturally, building a bonfire outback was quickly latched onto as the only plausible means of salvaging this party. The only problem was that no one really wanted to make the fire itself, they just wanted to enjoy it once it was burning.
I freaking love making fires. So I put down my cheap beer and started collecting some sticks n’ twigs from the nearby wooded areas. Someone scrounged up a Duraflame, and we arranged our kindling into a careful conic structure around it. This tidy assembly was clumsily lit with a Bic by our host. It took a little while for the flames to pick up, but after about ten minutes we had a pretty large fire rolling at the nexus of the 8 or 9 appreciative bodies circumscribing this new heat source.
As the other attendees slid back into their various conversations, I noticed that the consumption rate of the firewood was outpacing the rate at which firewood was being collected (which was a whopping 0 sticks/minute).
To remedy this situation, I broke off from the Donald Trump theme song brainstorm sesh that was engrossing the conversation to go fetch additional wood. I personally kept that fire roaring for a good thirty minutes in relative anonymity, until I made the conscious decision to stop fueling it and watch it die out. As the fire proceeded to slowly ebb into embers, I felt a deep (and weird) connectedness to this simple little fire in the middle of this mediocre party.
The lifecycle of all projects
These are two stories about the only thing that is certain in life: entropy will always win.
All the projects you are working on right now are just like that sandcastle and that bonfire. All projects are defined by a value function, where the perceived value of the resources put into a successful project have a lower perceived value than that project’s output. We creators input work to make this function positive. The total net value created by your project is the integral of this function.
Each value function has three main phases: value creation, steady state value production, and value decay. The function can be graphed sort of like this:
1. Value Creation Phase
This is the messy front end. It is when the innovator or creator is most critical to the process, and it is when the overall risk of failure is highest. Here you are learning what your project is, inventing value it creates, how it will grow, etc. For example, if your project is a painting, this is the part where you are actually laying down paint on canvas. Almost all books and articles you will ever read about the creative process are talking about what to do in this phase.
2. Steady State Phase
Once a project exists, it enters the Steady State Phase. During this phase the project does not significantly change shape, and is supported at its peak value level by a Maintainer. Sometimes that is the same person as the creator, sometimes it is not (like the case of startup founders being replaced by professional CEOs). This is the phase where the system is actually most valuable to other people, and where the opportunity exists for the creator to capture a percentage of that value for themselves if they so choose.
For a painting, this is the time it spends sitting in the gallery for the world to enjoy, and for the curators and guards to keep safe and maintained. The creator often finds this part of the lifecycle insipidly uninteresting.
3. Decay Phase
The final phase of any project is the Decay Phase. This is when the value function driving the incentives to maintain the project break down. This is the natural end state of all projects, including our sandcastle and bonfire. For a painting, this would be the moment it is discarded, or the time when it sits in the curator’s warehouse collecting mold and dust.
Often, projects hit this phase when the resources required to maintain the project begin to seem more valuable than the project’s output. An example of this is a legacy codebase that is more expensive to maintain than the price of a proposal to build a new system to replace it.
If the opportunity cost of maintaining a project is too high, a rational creator will do one of two things.
Decay phase case 1: If the project can keep existing without maintenance for some period of time, the creator can just forget about it. For example, NASA does this with old satellites all the time. Once a satellite is no longer useful, it’s common to simply allow it to slowly orbit closer and closer to Earth until it eventually falls into the atmosphere and burns up. The satellite may still capture a bit more useful data during this type of decay phase, perhaps even at a high return on asset ratio since no resources are going into maintenance here. Regardless, any data collected during this phase is seen by NASA as gravy. The satellite is on its way to death.
Decay phase case 2: Sometimes it is not possible to let a project die a slow death. Usually in cases like these, the project is monopolizing resources at a very high opportunity cost. Perhaps you are using a CPU in your closet for Bitcoin mining, but you want to instead use that same CPU as a rendering farm for a major new client you landed. You need that expensive CPU to do the work, so you have to kill your mining project in order to employ it.
When the opportunity cost of keeping a given project alive is high, you must transition from a Maintainer to an Executioner. This is a healthy thing that frees up your resources to be utilized more fully. There is nothing wrong with killing projects.
But the one role that you should never take on is that of the Embalmer. Once a project’s value function no longer yields a net positive number, that project should not continue to be preserved. Creators that preserve projects in the name of residual nostalgia (‘we’ve always done it this way’) will always regret (or pay for) their decision.
This is not just true for projects
This very same value function applies in relationships (platonic and otherwise), though we have a much harder time accepting this truth.
A relationship is an interaction force between two people that is designed to enrich the lives of both creators. The first phase of a relationship’s creation is an exciting phase of mystery, discovery, and novel new experiences. The subsequent maintenance phase is characterized by consistent bidirectional enrichment and shared memory making. The dawn of Decay Phase is marked by a corruption of the relationship’s underlying value function. Once the enrichment emanating from the interaction becomes mono-directional (one person gets a lot more out of it than the other), too infrequent, or totally nonexistent, the decay has begun to snowball.
Sure, not all relationships must decay, a few rare friendships and marriages really do last entire lifetimes in a high output maintenance phase. But I think the more common case (judging by divorce rates and personal experience) is that most relationships enter Decay Phase long before the death of the people involved in those relationships.
Absurdly, we almost always become Embalmers of our relationships instead of Executioners despite this fact. We prop relationships up and repeatedly bail them out, sacrificing additional precious resources to harvest ever diminishing dividends. We throw good time after bad. We choose to pump wishful thinking into relationships to keep them alive, instead of killing them or letting them wind down to free up resources that can then be deployed to grow new relationships that produce net positive value functions.
We do this because making new things grow is risky, hard, and scary. Using personal energy to hack authentic human interactions out of daily noise is often exhausting. It can feel like we are embodying the story of Sisyphus pushing his rock up that hill. So instead, we sit in a tepid pool of decaying projects, jobs, relationships, and beliefs for years until we inevitably die. This is pure madness (and the reality of the modern American suburb).
What to do instead?
The failure point of human happiness is this rampant inability to kill systems operating in the Decay Phase. We are all afraid to pull the trigger. We envision the void that we’d be left with in the wake of such a move and we grow weak and afraid. We’d rather have a so-so sure thing over the possibility of a truly great thing.
If you take one thing away from this post, know this: the void of emptiness is all there really is. It is the white canvas upon which everything in life is built. It is infinite potential energy, waiting to be organized by you, the creator of your own life.
If you ever want to be authentically happy with the experience of living your life, you must first be comfortable in this infinite void of nothingness. You must be able to comfortably exist in the absence of meaning, of human interaction, of joy, of success. You must be able to stand tall in the abyss without shutting down your mind. You must be able to observe faint little ripples in that void which could just maybe become real structures. You must be willing to invest time in turning ripples into structures. You must go forge a ‘meaning of my life’ structure, a family structure, a career structure.
You can build structures that will yield warmth and satisfaction and enrichment. You can maintain them for as long as they produce those things. And then you will end or let go of the ones that stop producing joy. You will let that sand sift back into the void to be repurposed into something new.
You keep going until you yourself fade away into the black sand of the universe. Back into the raw constituents of stars and planets from which you first emerged. You fade away in order to make room for the next spry creator to build their own little sandcastles atop their respective voids. They too will fade to the next one day.
Those future creators won’t know anything about the beautifully fragile castles you constructed. They won’t feel the calming warmth of the bonfires you maintained.
But the same grains of sand that ran through your fingers will run through theirs. They will make beauty from nothing just as you did. And no matter how fearful of the void you may be now, remember that you aren’t the first to fear it. The creators that came before you whose sandcastles you can’t ever see and whose fires you can’t ever feel experienced that very same fear.
You are alive now. You will die soon. You are temporary, so be it. Now go sculpt something remarkable from your void, because that is what we do.