What Happened to the 15-Hour Workweek?

Almost a century ago in 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the 21st century, we would grow so wealthy that we would only need to work 15 hours a week.

Keynes was half-right. We did grow wealthy—even wealthier than he predicted. GDP per capita is four times what it was in Keynes’s time.

Yet, Keynes was also half-wrong. We aren’t working 15-hour weeks. Weekly work hours in the United States have hardly budged from the average of 48 hours in Keynes’ time.


What’s more, the rich—who should have the most time for leisure—are working harder than ever. What happened? Why did Keynes’s prediction fail? Why aren’t we all, in the Western world at least, working 15-hour weeks?

These are hotly debated questions, and I won’t try to give a complete answer here. Instead, I’d like to use these questions to reveal something interesting about human nature, the good life, and the ways we relate to money.

Beyond the Horizon

Robert Skidelsky—the celebrated biographer of Keynes—asks these same questions in his book How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. Robert wrote the book together with his son, Edward, who is a professional philosopher.

The Skidelskys argue that Keynes made the mistake of thinking that human wants are finite:

[Keynes] failed to distinguish wants from needs; in fact, he used the two terms interchangeably throughout his essay. … Needs—the objective requirements of a good and comfortable life—are finite in quantity, but wants, being purely psychic, are infinitely expandable, as to both quantity and quality.

Keynes thought that, as we got richer, each additional unit of money would be less and less valuable us, until we reached a point where it wouldn’t make sense to pursue more:

[Keynes] believed that [we] would one day be fully satisfied, leaving us free for “higher things.” We now know better. Experience has taught us that material wants know no natural bounds, that they will expand without end unless we consciously restrain them. Capitalism rests precisely on this endless expansion of wants. … It has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough.

It is unfair, I think, to blame capitalism for destroying “the consciousness of having enough.” Evolutionary theory has taught us that all living creatures have a natural drive to survive and reproduce. The endless pursuit of more part of human nature, not the result of a capitalist society.

Still, it does seem possible that life in a hyper-capitalist society might make our natural desires even worse. How might capitalism lead to an “endless expansion of wants”?

I Want What You Want

Well, one explanation is that there are simply more things to want. A supermarket today has thousands of options to choose from, and there will always be more things than we can afford.

Advertising—which appears on billboards, in trains and trams, on our smartphone screens, or cleverly disguised as a “blog post”—is now impossible to escape from, and it exposes us to a never-ending stream of products that we didn’t know we needed.

These are well-known complaints. However, there’s another important and poorly-understood reason for want-expansion. Keynes thought that, once our needs were fulfilled, it wouldn’t make sense to work more. However, it turns out that there is a certain need that requires an infinite supply of money to satisfy.

This need is the need for social status.

Ripped Jeans and the Short-Short Skirt Problem

As a teenager, I remember desperately trying to convince my mother to buy me a pair of ripped jeans.

“Why?” she asked. “It’s December and it’s cold. Why do you want pants with holes?!  They cost forty dollars! It makes no sense.”

What my mother didn’t understand was something that I couldn’t put into words at the time. What matters to a teenager is not how functional or warm a pair of pants is. What matters is whether you’re “in” or you’re “out.”

For me, ripped jeans were the dividing line that separated the worthy from the unworthy, the cool kids from the losers. Having ripped jeans was a status symbol, and teenagers instinctively how important status is for getting through school unbullied and unharmed.

Though we rarely admit it, status is just as important for adults. In fact, status-driven spending, say the Skidelskys, is precisely what Keynes failed to consider. Once our ordinary needs are met, most of our money goes towards inflating our status:

Above a certain economic level, the bulk of income is spent on items that are not needed in any absolute sense but rather serve to mark out their possessors as superior, or at least not inferior, to others.

The official term for this is conspicuous consumption, and I’ve touched on it in a previous essay on the fundamental consumerist delusion.

The Short Skirt Problem.

Although it’s not too hard to understand how status competition leads to some increase in spending, it might not be clear why it can lead to an endless increase.

One way to understand is what I call the short skirt problem.

Here in Japan, I live next to a high school. As some of you know, Japanese students wear uniforms. So here’s something that puzzled me for a long time. It’s December and very cold here, but all the students wear short skirts.


Yes, they’re this short. Even when it’s snowing outside.

At first, I thought this was a policy instated by some perverted Head Teacher, but that’s not the case. Japanese skirts are supposed to be worn past the knees. Instead, the girls purposely roll up their skirts to shorten them. Why? Here’s my theory: Because a short skirts are to them what ripped jeans were to me.

To roll down your skirt in the winter time, no matter how cold it is, is to announce, “I’m a loser!” Which, of course, means sayonara to your friends and hello to a world of ostracism and bullying. As they say in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Luckily (or unluckily, if you’re a Head Teacher), skirts can only get so short. But, when it comes to spending, there’s no natural limit. If my peers are earning $100,000 a year, then I want to earn $200,000. If they’re earning several million, then I want to go for a billion. No matter how rich you get, there’s room to spend and consume more.

Put in economic language, status signaling through consumption is a positional good. It doesn’t matter that we’re richer than in 1930. What matters is where I stand on the economic hierarchy, and that means spending more and more to keep myself there.

Here’s the (hilarious) advertising legend Rory Sutherland writing about the same idea, in the context of cheese:

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but middle-class rules now require that every dinner party cheeseboard must contain at least two cheeses which aren’t very nice. … I was baffled by this for a long time, until I realised that these cheeses are not bought to be eaten, but to signal the sophistication of the occasion. **There are many forms of consumption today where — dress it up all you like — it is obvious the main value lies not in the intrinsic value of the thing itself but in signalling the refinement of your taste.** This increasingly creates a kind of feedback loop where people are driven to absurd lengths to gain competitive bragging rights.”

There are all sorts of examples of how status competition makes things uglier and more wasteful than they could be—political elections, modernist architecture and ridiculously long wine glass stems come to mind.

Add in globalization and things get even worse. Now, instead of being a moderately-handsome member of your mountain village, you’re uglier than every single K-Pop idol that appears on the TV screen. Now, none of the village ladies will even look at you.

The Crux of Culture

Another interesting factor to consider here is culture. Work hours vary quite a bit, even among countries that have similar levels of wealth. For example, Americans work an average of 400 more hours a year than Germans do.

Why might this happen? The Skidelskys suggest that culture is a big part of this difference:

“In an immigrant society like America, money-making was seen as the royal road to success; in Europe, the legacy of a hierarchical culture that limited opportunities for money-making both at the top and the bottom led to the adoption of ways of life that downgraded money-making as a goal.”

This makes me wonder if the American dream-ideology of “you can achieve whatever you want as long as you try” may have the side effect of making Americans work a lot harder.

This certainly happened to me. At one point, I was so obsessed with “becoming a millionaire before 30” that I refused to do anything but work all day, every day. If you asked me, “Why do you want to become rich?” I would mumble something about not having to work for the rest of my life. In retrospect, that wasn’t the real reason—the real reason, I think, was ripped-jeans syndrome.

Anyway, the Skidelskys argue that, in the past, cultural norms, traditions, and religious beliefs limited this “endless expansion of wants.” In Edo Japan, for example, merchants were considered the lowliest class. Religions almost universally criticized the endless pursuit of wealth. Morality and tradition served as a counterbalance to the pursuit of self-interest.

In contrast, modern life has removed this counterbalance. In fact, modern economic and political theory—in an attempt to remain “neutral”—tries to avoid talking about morality at all. Since “How much spending is too much?” is a moral question, what this means is that we’ve shot ourselves in the foot—ethical debate has been ejected from both economics and politics, to be replaced by a new ethic of “anything goes.”

(If you want to read more about this, see Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy.)

Now What?

If it’s true that most of our disposable income goes towards competitive consumption and status signaling, then consider this question: Is it possible to give up the status game and work less than 15 hours a week?

I’m lucky to be self-employed, and I decided to test this out for myself. For the last two months, I’ve tried to only do “real work” for one or two days each week. The rest of my time I spend reading dystopian novels (J. G. Ballard lately), thinking about political philosophy, listening to podcasts, and losing to my wife at Mario Kart.

So far, neither my (small) business nor my financial affairs have fallen apart. What I realized was that a lot of my so-called “work” in the past was fake—I got nothing done and simply sat at the computer because I thought I should be working.

Since becoming aware of how much of our energy goes into playing and winning the status game, I’ve decided that life is a lot more enjoyable when I choose not to play. These days, I live quietly, read books, and avoid people who talk about things like getting rich, becoming successful, or leaving a legacy. So far, no high school girls have come around to bully me.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone only work two days a week. Most bosses would never accept that. But I do think that most people don’t realize how much of their time (and therefore their lives) is driven by status considerations.

So I think it’s worth asking the following question: “How much of what I do is done because I care about status? And how could my life be different if I care a little bit less?”

P.S. If you want to read more on the subject, some books that influenced me are philosopher Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, and playwright Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theater have taught me what a big role status relationships play in the decisions that we make. (Johnstone goes as far as to say that understanding status relationships is the most important thing for good acting and good comedy.)

Where is the ‘self’ in ‘self-improvement’?

Today, many of us think about self-improvement in the same manner we think about home-improvement or car-improvement or culinary-improvement. That is, we think of the self as an object -like an Arabian camel, or a chocolate croissant, or a pair of pantyhose -that sits separate and independent from ourselves.

With a small amount of consideration, this way of thinking falls apart. The self, unlike pastries or pantyhose, is not a separate object. It is a part of us. When it comes to self-help, we are both the architect and the architecture, both the horse and the rider.

Things get more complicated when you realize that, despite advances in science, we are a long way from understanding ourselves -our motivations, our desires, or what really makes us do the things we do.

In fact, because science only deals with generalities (populations, not people), there’s a limit to what it can tell us about ourselves. The self remains opaque and resistant to self-knowledge -and it may stay that way forever.

But if we do not, and cannot, know ourselves, then how is it possible to improve ourselves? Or, put another way, “Where is the self in self-improvement?”

The Economy of the Self

When I had the idea for this essay, I did a  Google search to see if anyone else had my brilliant idea before I did. As always, someone beat me to it.

It seems the author Kathryn Schulz, who I am a fan of, was thinking along the same lines when, in 2013, she wrote an essay for NY Mag titled The Self in Self-Help.

In that piece, she challenges the self-help industry:

[In the past 1600 years], we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings. We have, however, developed an $11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives. Put those two facts together and you get a vexing question: Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?

What I think Schulz is suggesting here is that self-help has overstated how easy it is for one to become popular, or successful, or happy or handsome. Becoming happy, or escaping misery, has never been as simple as a twelve-step plan, a four-hour work week, or a daily dose of transcendental meditation.

The self is both complex and resistant to understanding. In this sense, managing the self is more like managing the US economy than your neighborhood brewery. A skilled Japanese craftsman may be able to brew a wonderful keg of beer 99% of the time, but this is not the case in economics. Our forecasts frequently fail, our policies backfire, and the things politicians do (or say they do) to improve the human condition can end up making life a whole lot more miserable.

Hello, Old Soul

Because economies are so complex, we use models -simplifications of reality -to guide our thinking.

When it comes to self-help (or psychiatry, or psychoanalysis, or psy-anything), we do something similar. All self-help theories, says Schulz, model the self in a particular way:

[The master theory] goes like this: Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.

Different self-help theories “carve you up” in different ways -emotional vs rational, conscious vs unconscious, mind vs body, primitive vs advanced -but they all possess this duality that separates you into both subject and object: the part of you that is acting and the part of you that is being acted upon.

With some reflection, this way of thinking starts to look a lot like something many of us thought we grew out of. Namely, the existence of an immortal soul:

The self-help movement seeks to account for and overcome the difficulties we experience when we are trying to make a desired change—but doing so by invoking an immortal soul and a mortal sinner (or an ego and an id, a homunculus and its minion) is not much different from saying that we “are of two minds,” or “feel torn,” or for that matter that we have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. These are not explanations for the self. They are metaphors for the self.

Renouncing religion does not free you from religious ways of thinking. Those of us unable to believe in the gods now turn to self-help books, backed by the guarantees of gurus or guru-scientists.

Playing With Chaos

If the self is chaotic and hard to understand, then what this also means is that we do not know as much about our likes, hates, or desires as we think we do.

We humans are constantly telling ourselves stories about who we are, what we want, where we came from, and where we are going. But stories, like immortal souls, are just a simplification, a metaphor for something much more complex and impossible to understand.

When we tell ourselves “She is the only one that will make happy,” or “I’m just not that kind of person,” we pretend we understand what we want and what will bring us satisfaction. But -as any adult knows -sometimes we love the things we thought we would hate and sometimes the woman of our dreams can, in reality, be a nightmare.

Or, as Schulz says, perhaps our lives need more randomness and more experimentation:

Or maybe we humans change the way species do: through random variation. If that’s the case, then the strategy we’ve arrived at out of necessity might be the best one anyone could design. Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.

If I have learned anything in the past few years, it is that I do not know what I like, who am I, or what I want. Some of my most elaborate plans (world travel comes to mind) did not give me the pleasure that I thought they would. Other experiences I thought I would hate became hobbies that I now try to do more frequently.

Self-help, when I believed in it most, taught me that happiness was a matter of knowledge. If I my plans failed, it was because I had not found the correct guru, book, twelve-step plan, or scientific theory. Now, to me, this way of thinking smells of the old religion of Gnosticism, where people believed that obtaining “secret knowledge” was the secret to salvation.

Someone (I forgot who) once said that politics was the art of managing and dealing with “recurring evils.” This is the way I have come to think about the self. We should do what we can to make our lives better (or less miserable), but we should not have too much faith in the utopian illusion that we can make all our problems go away, always and forever.

Some might say this way of thinking is gloomy, but I find it quite freeing. Instead of spending my life in pursuit of perpetual improvement, now I have room to just be.

Games and the Design of Optimal Human Experience

As a teen, I spent more of my time in game worlds than in the real world.

At home, I spent all my time playing games like The Elder Scrolls: OblivionStar Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect. At school, all my time was spent daydreaming about the games I would play when I got home.

In college, I learned to think of my gaming habit as an addiction. At great personal cost, I managed to wean myself off of games.

In other words, I learned to assume the “default moral position” that many conservative adults have about games. To these people, games are the moral relatives of hookers and heroin: Addictive, life-destroying substances to be avoided at all costs.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about games again. In particular, I’ve been asking the following question: Why are games so fun and engaging?

When I played games, it was easy for me to sit at the computer for ten, twelve, or even sixteen hours a day. I’ve never been able to focus on anything else—reading books, programming, writing, etc.—for nearly that long.

This year, I’ve read a couple books on games, and I’ve come up one possible answer: Games are optimal forms of human experience.

A Theory of Fun

One gem of a book I discovered recently is Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Koster has led the design of massively popular games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. He’s also wildly curious and a voracious reader.

Though the book is intended for game designers, I think it is much more valuable than it first appears. What the book actually offers is a fascinating exploration into human nature, evolutionary theory, and the design of optimal human experience.

For example, a key question in the book is “What is fun?”

Koster argues that fun is the experience of developing mastery. When we acquire new skills and recognize valuable patterns, our brains reward us with a shot of pleasurable sensations:

“One of the subtlest releases of [reward] chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn–therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. … Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.

Teachers are making a mistake when they debate the question “Should learning be fun?” If Koster is right, then learning cannot be anything but fun. This is because, as Koster says, “Fun is just another word for learning.”

The best games are fun because they are optimal learning environments. Feedback loops are short, fast, and tailored your skill level. Challenges grow as you develop new skills. Failures are meaningful: Every time you make a mistake, you get a clue about how you can learn and do a better job.

This leads to an interesting contradiction. Another place in our lives that is supposed to be about “optimal learning” is the school.

If learning has to be fun, then why is school—a place designed for learning—oftentimes so boring?

Boredom, At the Right Time

Boredom, says Koster, is what we feel when our brain decides that there is nothing worth learning:

“Boredom is the opposite [of fun]. When a game stops teaching us, we feel bored. Boredom is the brain casting about for new information. It is the feeling you get when there are no new patterns to absorb. When a book is dull and fails to lead you on to the next chapter, it is failing to exhibit a captivating pattern.”

All games get boring at some point. This is because no game has an infinite amount of things to teach you. Eventually, the game runs out of compelling patterns and you stop playing.

Again, there’s an evolutionary reason for this. It’s wasteful to spend time learning skills you’ve already mastered.

The goal for game designers is not to design a game that is never boring. Rather, they want to design games that are only boring once you’ve exhausted all the fun. This is why Koster defines a good game as “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.”

Schools as Transmission Failures

If a good game is one that teaches you everything it has to teach before the player quits, then you could say that a good school is one that teaches you everything it intends to before the students leave.

School is so boring, says Koster, because it fails to transfer the patterns that it intends to teach:

“One wonders, then, why learning is so damn boring to so many people. It’s almost certainly because the method of transmission is wrong.”

If school is boring, then somebody, somewhere has failed. Maybe it’s the teacher. Maybe it’s the school. Maybe it’s the entire system. Or maybe it’s the student.

This transmission failure can happen in a variety of ways. Here are some of them:

  • The patterns to be learned are too easy, so you get bored. This is a common problem for gifted students that are way ahead of their peers.
  • The patterns to be learned are too hard, so you perceive them as chaos and random noise. You get bored and give up. This can happen when a student is behind, or when a teacher teaches something without providing the proper background knowledge.
  • The patterns don’t feel meaningful. Maybe you don’t feel that learning American history or integral calculus will be very valuable in the future.

To some extent, these problems are unavoidable. All the students in a single classroom will never be on the “same page”; some will be too advanced and others will be too beginner to engage with the schoolwork.

Good games get around this by dynamically adjusting levels to match player skill. Perhaps in the future schools can do the same?

Learning, Good and Bad

Of course, I wouldn’t want a teenager to read this article and drop out of school to play World of Warcraft.

Games might be optimal learning environments, but there’s no guarantee that they’re teaching skills that you actually want or need. In other words, not all learning is good learning.

This is something Koster spends a lot of time emphasizing in his book. Games tend to teach primitive skills: jumping, swinging, timing, fighting, and so on.

Koster writes:

“Many games, particularly those that have evolved into the classic Olympian sports, can be directly traced back to the needs of primitive humans to survive under very difficult conditions. Many things we have fun at doing are in fact training us to be better cavemen. We learn skills that are antiquated. Most folks never need to shoot something with an arrow to eat…”

Again, notice the evolutionary theme here. The skills of running, jumping, and fighting may still be very important for an Australian boomerang-hunter (or a Canadian ice hockey player), but they’re a lot less useful for a writer or computer programmer.

Games also tend to harness our natural tendency to operate in xenophobic packs. Games, says Koster, can reinforce traits like:

  • Blind obedience to leaders and cults
  • Formation of rigid hierarchies of power and status
  • Use of force to solve problems
  • Xenophobia

What this means to me is that school often do a bad job of teaching us things that are (supposedly) good for us while games often do the reverse: They do a good job of teaching us things that are often useless in modern life.

What this also means is that school and games can learn from each other. Perhaps teachers should study games to learn why they’re so compelling, and game designers can think about what schools are trying to teach and find better ways of doing so.

Actually, this is already happening. I’ve used “gamification” many times in the past months to make learning a more enjoyable experience. I’ve used Vim Adventures to learn the ins and outs of the Vim text editor. I’ve used the web app Habitica to help keep track of habits and tasks. I’ve used tools like Codewars and HackerRank to pick up the rudiments of programming.

In all these cases, I’m sure I learned much more than I would have from the traditional, “tiger mother” style of learning, where education is supposed to be full of pain and suffering. That style of education just doesn’t make sense to me.

Beyond Fun: Games as Optimal Human Experience

Games are not just about fun and learning, though.

In Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Dr. Jane McGonigal argues that games are about much more–they’re sources of optimal human experience.

Positive psychology is the study of human well-being, and McGonigal argues that we’ve discovered four categories of intrinsically rewarding human experience:

  • Satisfying work – Activities that are clearly defined, challenging, and provide clear feedback.
  • The experience or promise of success – We want to feel that we are in control of outcomes and that we are getting better over time.
  • Meaningfulness – The feeling of being a part of something bigger. One thinks of the wonderful game worlds of Halo or the Elder Scrolls series.
  • Social connection – Sharing experiences with others and working towards communal goals.

These experiences are what the Greeks called atelic experiences; they have no telos, or end goal. Instead, they’re done for their own sake. Filing taxes is telic, but playing games, it seems, is often atelic.

Interestingly, McGonigal argues that, when it comes to creating these intrinsically rewarding, atelic experiences, games do a much better job than real life:

“Good games help us experience the four things we crave most–and they do it safely, cheaply, and reliably.”

We play games because they provide us with important experiences that reality often fails to:

“When we realize that this reorientation toward intrinsic reward is what’s really behind the 3 billion hours a week we spend gaming globally, the mass exodus to game worlds is neither surprising nor particularly alarming. Instead, it’s overwhelming confirmation of what positive psychologists have found in their scientific research: self-motivated, self-rewarding activity that really does make us happier.

So studying games doesn’t just teach us how to make learning more fun. It can also teach us how to make life feel more worth living.

When a teenager (or adult) escapes from real life to game worlds, we shouldn’t simply call that person “weak” or “a coward.” We should also ask, “What is it about life that made this person run away?”

Ugly cityscapes can cause us “turn inward” to introspection and depression. Likewise, perhaps poor experiences of living can encourage us to turn inward to game worlds, which provide us with the essential, optimal experiences that we cannot get from real life.

I think this is, in part, what I was doing during my childhood when I spent thousands of hours playing video games.

Another thought: Skeptical parents often ask, “Why are video games useful?”. But if games are atelic activities and valuable in themselves, then this may be a category mistake. Games don’t need to be useful if they’re valuable in themselves.

We don’t play games to succeed in the real world; We succeed in the real world so that we can play games.

Back to Reality

Still, most of us don’t have the option to play games all day. We have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed, and obligations to carry out.

The answer, then, is not to run away from life and live in a game world. Rather, McGonigal argues that we should use games to make real-life experiences more valuable. (A whole two-thirds of her book is dedicated to that subject, so check it out if you’re interested.)

Thinking more about games recently has convinced me that studying them can teach us a lot about how to improve everyday experience.

Recently, I’ve realized at least two things:

  • You can use games to accelerate learning. I used to think that games can help you learn because fun things keep you motivated. Now, I realize that games help you learn because to have fun is to learn. If I’m trying to learn something and not having much fun, this is a good sign that I’m doing something wrong.
  • Don’t feel guilty about playing games for fun. After years of hating myself whenever I touched a game, I’ve started to play games again. If games are near-optimal experiences, then why cut them out of my life?

While on vacation in southern Japan, I convinced my wife to play a couple games of Mario Kart with me at a local arcade. She’s always been terrified of driving, but (to my embarrassment) she crushed me 2-to-0 on her first try. Now, she’s not so terrified of driving anymore.

For whatever reason, I think that’s pretty cool.

The Drama of Rules: What Storytelling Can Teach Us About Human Nature

New fiction writers are often given the following advice: “Make your character want something. Then, prevent them from getting it.”

In other words, conflict is central to storytelling.

When I first heard this advice, I couldn’t understand it. Why not, I thought, tell stories about walks through Shinjuku Park or grandma’s adventures with new flavors of salad dressing?

After I read a few stories written by amateurs, I found my answer. Stories without conflict are boring. But this is a shallow answer, and it hides another, more interesting question: Why do humans find conflict so interesting?

Exploring this question reveals some interesting facets of human nature.

The Story that Never Ends

One clue to the conflict-story connection comes from a reader-recommended book: literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

The interesting thing about Gottschall is that he studies stories from the perspective of Darwinian evolution. Stories are a cultural universal: There isn’t a single country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, that isn’t steeped in stories and storytelling. If something is universal, there’s a good chance it’s the product of evolution, not culture.

At first, this doesn’t make sense. If stories, says Gottschall, only provided our cave-ancestors with joy, pleasure, or cheap entertainment, then they would have exited the gene pool. Other species that didn’t waste time telling stories around the campfire (and went to collect raspberries or firewood instead) would have been the ones to survive.

Food tastes good to us today (in part) because it encouraged our ancestors to hunt for calories. From the perspective of evolution, the pleasurable taste of good food is a reward for doing things that help us survive and reproduce.

Similarly, if watching films of Superman frying bad guys with laser beams is so pleasurable, we might ask: Why do stories with conflict feel good? Why do we see them in every culture on the planet? Did stories have some evolutionary purpose?

The Evolution of Storytelling

One group evolutionary psychologists like to study is children. Children are young, and relatively unaffected by culture and socialization. This lets you, to a certain extent, separate nature from nurture.

So what kind of stories do children tell?

Surprise! They’re full of conflict and violence:

“[One] collection of 360 stories told by preschoolers features … trains running over puppies and kittens; a naughty girl being sent to jail; a baby bunny playing with fire and burning down his house; a little boy slaughtering his whole family with a bow and arrows; a different boy knocking out people’s eyes with a cannon; a hunter shooting and eating three babies; children killing a witch by driving 189 knives into her belly. These stories amply support the play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith, who writes, ‘The typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down. In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.’

Although stories told by boys contain more violence than those told by girls, who tend to prefer stories about the home life, the same theme of problem and conflict remains:

“..it is important to stress that girl play only seems untroubled when compared to the mayhem of boy play. Risk and darkness seep into the doll corner as well. For example, [education researcher Vivian] Paley recounts how, at first glance, it may seem that the girls are sweetly playing mother and baby. But look closer. First, the baby almost gets fed poison apple juice. Then a bad guy tries to steal the baby. Then the baby “gets his bones broken off” and is almost set on fire.”

We live in a time where some people get offended when you say that girls might prefer to play with dolls, but Gottschall points out that this is likely biological—a remnant of evolution adapted to a time where males hunted and women helped raise children.

Likewise, the attraction to violence—despite the panicked worry that some parents show—probably isn’t entirely due to bad TV shows and violent video games. Violence and conflict are part of our evolutionary past.

This suggests that stories, despite all their variety, contain some common essence that transcends all times, places, nationalities and cultures:

“Beneath all of the wild surface variety in all the stories that people tell—no matter where, no matter when—there is a common structure. Think of the structure as a bony skeleton that we rarely notice beneath its padding of flesh and colorful garments. …stories can be told only in a limited number of ways. Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly—to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story—comic, tragic, romantic—is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.

Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication

Notice how this is precisely what teachers of fiction tell their students to do!

So this is all very cool and interesting, but the same questions remain: “Why is conflict so crucial for storytelling? And what does that tell us about human nature?”


Stories as Flight Simulators

It turns out that evolutionary psychologists are still debating the origins of story, and we don’t have a clear, final answer to our question.

Some suggest that stories are an evolutionary accident, a side effect of other adaptations that we developed. Others suggest that we tell stories for the same reason a male peacock flashes his tail—to attract members of the opposite sex.

Gottschall, though, argues that stories may function as “flight simulators”:

“Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.”

One clue comes from dreams. It turns out that an overwhelming fraction of dreams—like the stories told by children—involve us facing problems. Very rarely do we have  “fun” dreams where we fly in the sky or have “romances” with strangers we meet on the street.

MMA fighters can become better fighters just by imagining they are fighting; If so, it’s not surprising we can get better at overcoming the problems of social life by dreaming or reading stories.

Of course, this is an explanation for how stories evolved. It’s not the only or main way we use stories today. It’s like our taste buds—they helped us find nutritious food in the past, but it’s hard to argue that my desire to eat an entire Italian, fire-grilled pizza serves some “deeper” purpose today.

There’s one more fascinating way that stories are universal, and it is to that that I turn next.

The Drama of Rules

Another universal feature of stories is that they seem to involve breaking the rules. This doesn’t just involving violating laws or commandments—it also means violating hidden, tacitly-accepted social rules that we may not be consciously aware of.



Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst and one of the UK’s most well-known essayists writes the following in Going Sane: Maps of Happiness:

“Most of the ways we describe people, and all of the ways we judge and diagnose people, involve an account of the kind of relationship they have with the rules. Our founding myths—of Oedipus, of Narcissus, of Prometheus, of Antigone, of the Fall—like our tabloid newspapers, are all about people breaking the rules… The marriage of scandal and righteous indignation, of outrage and punishment, are the staples of all human drama. The context is always that of crime and punishment; of people wanting to be good or bad, or good an bad, and of people being punished (by gods or fate or the world), and wanting to punish and be punished. Ancient myths and biblical stories are about taboos; novels are about adultery; songs are about betrayal. As a theme the drama of rules is remarkably resilient.”

If you’ve read my series on Christopher Columbus, this may sound familiar. Stories help us orient ourselves in the world and cooperate with members of our community; They show us what happens when we break the “rules” and what happens when we follow them.

Though the stories we like often contain violence, the violence tends to be moral, says Gottschall:

“Fiction almost never gives us morally neutral presentations of violence. When the villain kills, his or her violence is condemned. When the hero kills, he or she does so righteously. Fiction drives home the message that violence is acceptable only under clearly defined circumstances—to protect the good and the weak from the bad and the strong. Yes, some video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, glorify wickedness, but those games are the notorious exceptions that prove the general rule.”

Indeed, if you look at human violence, most violent crimes aren’t committed by psychopaths. They’re committed by people driven by a strong sense of moral righteousness.

Imagine if you had to break every social convention to learn that things were wrong: You’d have to punch both of your grandmothers, sleep with your bosses’ wife, pee on the sidewalk, eat your Aunt’s pet poodle, dip your french fries in mayonnaise, and so on.

zelda potion

From codeus


Evil Aliens, Princesses, Dragons, Oh My!

Okay, enough abstract stuff. Time for some field work—let’s look at some stories from popular culture and see if we can’t spot some patterns.

Instead of looking at short stories or novels, I want to look at video games. Storytelling is central to game creation, so we should see the same two universals of conflict (flight simulators) and moral orientation (the drama of rules).

For fun, I looked at a few storylines from my favorite games growing up. All of these are on IGN’s list of the top 100 games of all time (quotes are from Wikipedia):

  • Super Mario 64 – “Mario discovers that Bowser has invaded the castle and imprisoned the princess…” (Save princess from evil King-dude.)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – “The player controls Link in the fantasy land of Hyrule on a quest to stop Ganondorf, king of the Gerudo tribe, from obtaining the Triforce, a sacred wish-granting relic.” (Fighting an evil enemy tribe-King and also save a princess.)
  • Dark Souls – “…the player’s attempts … to either reverse or perpetuate the spread of an ‘Undead curse’ that prevents death but prompts a gradual descent into madness.” (Saving the world from darkness.)
  • Half-Life 2 – “Gordon Freeman is awakened … to find the world has been taken over by the alien Combine. …Gordon searches for a way to free humanity…” (Saving the humanity from aliens.)
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “…[Protagonist must] defeat Alduin the World-Eater, a dragon who is prophesied to destroy the world.” (Save the world from evil dragon.)

Notice the recurring themes of good vs evil, dark vs light, which are often combined with family members or lovers that must be rescued.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are games like Grand Theft Auto that don’t have a strong moral component, and there are puzzle games like Tetris or Candy Crush that humans find interesting for other reasons (see Sarah Perry’s post Puzzle Theory for a deep-dive on puzzles).

The most interesting thing I found during my “field work,” though, was a demographics survey for the game Mass Effect. This game is about saving the galaxy from genocidal aliens called ‘Reapers’ that want to exterminate all sentient life forms.

Mass Effect has a morality system, and the choices you make affect your in-game personality, the reactions of game characters, and even the final outcome of the game.

With “Paragon” choices corresponding to good and “Renegade” choices correspond to evil, players made the following choices:


When given the choice, it seems most people want to play as the good guy. For some reason, I find that kind of reassuring.


The Tyranny of the Perfect Day

At age twenty-two, I spent two weeks drafting a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish before I turned thirty.

I called it my Eight-Year Plan. At the time I was lonely, socially awkward, and dissatisfied, and the list was meant to be a cure for my problems. It was a blueprint, a rubric, a recipe that contained all the necessary ingredients of the “perfect life.”

I’ve since misplaced that list. This is probably a good thing—half of it was too embarrassing to share here, and the rest was a boring collection of secondhand dreams:

  • Start a successful company
  • Develop superhuman social skills (aka be really good with women)
  • Earn a million dollars
  • Travel the world

The list, at the time, felt cool and unique. But in retrospect, I was doing what every second-rate guru and life coach recommends: (a) imagine your ideal future and (b) create a plan to get you there.

I didn’t know it then, but I was also subjecting myself to the tyranny of the perfect life.

The tyranny of the perfect day

In the tyranny of the perfect day, blogger and author Matthew Sweet writes of his attempts to make each day conform to his ideal of the perfect:

“A while ago I discovered my ‘perfect morning’. I liked to rise before the sun, meditate for a while, read whilst drinking a few cups of coffee, then write for a few hours. After that, I’d squeeze in whatever else my relationships, commitments and ambitions demanded of me. So, I thought, why not try to make every morning like that? I tried and it was surprisingly successful. But it also made me fragile. If I didn’t get up early enough then I felt the morning was lost. If my meditation session went terribly then it threw me out of rhythm. If I couldn’t focus whilst reading I felt annoyed. If I sat at the keyboard and nothing came to me, I’d wind myself up into a hybrid state of anxiety and fear. I was seeking uniformity in my mornings and Life was giving me the middle finger, thwarting my quest in mostly consistent, but sometimes unexpected, ways.

Sweet’s story contains a paradox and a lesson.

Life is always more out of our control than we would like it to be. The perfect day is like that distant relative that, once or twice a year, shows up with presents and stories of exciting overseas adventures—despite our wishes, she only visits us on occasion, at random times, and never stays for as long as we would like her to.

“Stay hungry,” some say, “and never settle.” But why spend 364 days a year failing and flailing in order to make one day a year conform to your ideal of the perfect?

Also, as the film Groundhog Day shows us, the perfect day only remains perfect as long as it only shows up once in a while. If every day was “perfect” it would quickly become just another part of our ordinary experience. Then, we would need a new fantasy to take its place.

So much for the perfect day. But what of the perfect life?

The quest for uniformity

Similar to Sweet’s pursuit of the perfect day, the pursuit of the perfect life can mean imposing an artificial, rigid, uniformity on your life that does more harm than good.

As the history of the 20th century has shown us, the pursuit of utopian dreams never takes us quite where we want to go. Plans backfire. People change. New technologies develop. Life and history stubbornly refuse to conform to our fantasies of control.

Hitler, Mao and Stalin are all obvious examples. To them, a few million deaths were nothing, a small price to pay in exchange for a perfect paradise-on-earth that would last always and forever. Only problem one: The perfect life never came.

But what are some less bloody examples?

In his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed the political scientist James Scott writes of various failed attempts to impose artificial, top-down structure onto the complexity of life.

One example is the failed language of Esperanto. What the designers of the language failed to understand, argues Scott, is that languages are about far more than just ordinary communication:

“…language per se is not for only one or two purposes. It is a general tool that can be bent to countless ends by virtue of its adaptability and flexibility. The very history of an inherited language helps to provide the range of associations and meanings that sustain its plasticity.”

Likewise, catastrophes of urban planning, despite good intentions, were caused by a similar flaw in thinking. What sounds good on paper may ignore many sides of what makes a city or a community valuable:

“In much the same way [as one creates a language,] one could plan a city from zero. But since no individual or committee could ever completely encompass the purposes and lifeways, both present and future, that animate its residents, it would necessarily be a thin and pale version of a complex city with its own history. … Only time and the work of millions of its residents can turn these thin cities into thick cities. The grave shortcoming of a planned city is that it not only fails to respect the autonomous purposes and subjectivity of those who live in it but also fails to allow sufficiently for the contingency of the interaction between its inhabitants and what that produces.”

Looks good from far away, but a nightmare to live in.

Lifestyle design is a term I used to use a lot, but—like disastrous episodes of urban planning—my life hasn’t always responded to “design choices” in the way I expected.

A year after I wrote my Eight-Year Plan, I quit my job with the intention of traveling the world for at least a decade. I had absolutely no desire to settle down or find a stable life partner. That wasn’t what the cool kids did.

Of course, a few short years later, I did precisely the reverse: I quit traveling, settled down (in Japan, of all places), and got married.

Before I met my wife, my “ideal woman” was an intelligent, polymathic book-lover, cultured and with a PhD in math or science. Instead, my wife is a dance teacher, rarely reads, hates math, and never went to college. She’s great.

To pursue the perfect life is to assume that you have knowledge of who you are, what you want, and how you might get there. Both history, science, and personal experience have all taught me that I’m not so good at knowing myself or what I want for life.

The things I thought I wanted a few years ago are different from the things I think I want now. And, no doubt, they will be different again in ten years.

In what way, I wonder, does envisioning the perfect life assist me at all?

The year 2000 imagined in the early 20th century. The future we imagine often ends up looking like the present, with a few bits and pieces grafted on.

Pregnant nuns in Atlantis

So far, I’ve suggested several things—that pursuing the perfect life imposes an artificial rigidity; that personal projects can backfire and do great harm; and that, because our values constantly shift, the perfect life will never be quite as satisfying as we imagine.

But all of this was, actually, just a side point. My main point is to suggest that the very idea of the perfect life is incoherent.

The word utopia, in its original form, meant “no place,” and no place is, I think, the only place where the perfect life can be found.


My inspiration here comes from Isaiah Berlin, the famed 20th century philosopher and historian of ideas. Berlin was a proponent of something called value pluralism.

Humans have many needs and values. It is a hidden article of faith in Western thought—so widely believed that many of us never question it—that human needs and values can come together in perfect harmony.

There may be problems now, we say, but with the right political system, the right kind of education, the right economy, and the right technologies we can solve these problems once and forever.

But Berlin presents another possibility: What if our values and needs contradict one another, so that a gain somewhere means a loss somewhere else?

In his preface to Four Essays on Liberty, Berlin writes:

“Should democracy in a given situation be promoted at the expense of individual freedom? or equality at the expense of artistic achievement; or mercy at the expense of justice; or spontaneity at the expense of efficiency; or happiness, loyalty, innocence at the expense of knowledge and truth? The simple point I am concerned to make is that where ultimate values are irreconcilable, clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found.”

You can’t be both pregnant and a nun—choosing one way of life means giving up many others.

My desire for health and long life is at odds with my desire to eat delicious, fatty foods from the local Lawson convenience store. My desire for privacy is at odds with the convenience of tools like Google and Facebook. My need for solitude is at conflict with my need for friends, belonging, and social approval.

In his book on Isaiah Berlin (an excellent introduction if you’re looking for one), the philosopher John Gray writes:

“Within any complex culture, there will typically be a diversity of forms of life, each with its associated virtues and excellences, available to many people, but it will not be possible to combine these forms of life within the compass of a single biography. This may be because the virtues of a nun, say, constitutively exclude those of a lover, or it may be because, though different virtues can be combined in a single person, they tend to crowd one another out, or to be conjointly realizable only at the cost of each being achieved at a low level. … [Certain forms of social flourishing emerge from] social structures, or entire cultural traditions, that are themselves constitutively uncombinable. … [Or they may] demand in the individual agent virtues or excellences that cannot, as a matter of moral psychology or philosophical anthropology, be realized together.”

When I traveled and lived out of my backpack, freelancing a few hours a week to fund my travels, I didn’t need to depend or rely on anyone. Some people dream of this kind of life, but it’s not all sunny weather and coconuts.

Long-term travel was bitterly lonely at times. Friendships never seemed to last, and I at times found myself culturally isolated.

Now that I’m married and live in one place, the loneliness has faded (for now), and I feel like I have a place where I belong. But these wonderful things also come with accompanying shadows. Family and community also mean responsibility. My failures don’t just hurt me; they also hurt my family and the people I work with.

To re-emphasize, the key thing to realize is that the very idea of perfection is incoherent. It’s not that you haven’t found the right vocation, right life partner, right morning ritual, or right dietary supplement that will “tip the scales” towards a life of perfect harmony.

Rather, the human animal is so full of contradicting needs and desires that the idea of a perfect, problem-free life is something that can only exists in imagination—or, in my case, always somewhere five-to-eight years in the future.

What came up when I searched for “utopia.” Too crowded and too naked for me, but, uh, yea.

No Final Solution

When I was most-obsessed with my Eight-Year Plan, I was tyrannical, self-hating, and not so fun to be around. Friends and girlfriends were to be “liquidated” if not useful for personal growth. Time not spent productively was a failure of willpower or planning. I rarely took any days off and—when I did—I did it because taking time off would help me come back later and work harder.

I tried to compress all sides myself to a single, sharp and focused point. But over-focusing also means tunnel-vision, and tunnel-vision means that much of the picture gets left out.

“Why,” a girlfriend once asked me, “do you never stop and look up at the sky?”

I end with a final quote from Isaiah Berlin. In Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Berlin comments on a talk he gave in 1988:

“My talk … was intended to argue that the pursuit of a single, final, universal solution to human problems was a mirage. There are many ideals worth pursuing, some of them are incompatible with one another, but the idea of an all-embracing solution to all human problems which, if there is too much resistance to it, might need force to secure it, only tends to lead to bloodshed and the increase of human misery. … I believe that there is nothing more destructive of human lives than fanatical conviction about the perfect life*, allied to political or military power. Our century affords terrible evidence of this truth. I believe in working for a minimally decent society.”

Though Berlin speaks in a political context, I think this applies just as well to your life or mine.

The perfect life is always just around the corner but, if you stop for long enough and breathe, you may find that the minimally-decent life is here already, just under your feet.

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