What Really Matters About Being Human

As we roll into the weekend, and I start another digital sabbath, I’ve got the question “what really matters about being human” rolling through my mind.

I spent the afternoon at the Silicon Flatirons conference SciFi and Entrepreneurship – Is Resistance Futile? I thought it was phenomenal and remarkably thought provoking. I came back to my office to find Dane and Eugene playing TitanFall on my 75″ screen. In a few minutes I’m heading out to dinner with my parents, Amy, and John Underkoffler of Oblong who was in town for the conference. The juxtaposition of another intense week rolling into the weekend and a day off the grid intrigues me.

The first panel was a fireside chat between me and William Hertling. William is one of my favorite sci-fi writers who I think has mastered the art of near term science fiction. If you haven’t read any of his three books, I encourage you to head over to William’s website or Amazon and grab them now.

At the end of our fireside chat, we were asked a question. I heard the question as about mortality so I went on a long space jam about how I’ve been struggling with my own mortality for the past 18 months since having a near fatal bike accident (one inch and it would have been lights out.) Up to that point I felt like I had come to terms with my own mortality. I would often say that I believed that when the lights go out, they go out, and it’s all over. And I’m ok with it.

But last fall I realized I wasn’t. And during my depression at the beginning of 2013 I thought often about mortality, how I thought about it, whether I was bullshitting myself for the previous 25 years about being ok with it, and what really mattered about being alive, and being human.

I then handed things over to William. He  proceeded to answer the question that had been asked, which was about morality, not mortality.


When he finished and I’d realized what had just happened, I emitted a gigantic belly laugh. And then for the next couple of hours I kept applying the lens of “what really matters” to the discussion about science fiction, entrepreneurship, and the human race.

From the meditation I’ve been doing, I’m definitely exploring “listening to my thoughts” rather than obsessing over them. I’m recognizing that the narrative I’m creating in my brain is just my narrative and doesn’t necessarily have any real meaning, or importance, at all. 150 years from now, I don’t believe any of it will matter. And then, suddenly, the great John Galt quote “It’s not that I don’t suffer, but that I know the unimportance of suffering” comes to mind.

Sometime during the fireside chat, the statement popped out that “I believe the human species dramatically overvalues its importance to the universe.” I think this is going to be a radical point of conflict with the evolution of machines over the next 50 years. At this stage, it’s a part of what gives our lives meaning. There are so many complicated things that happen on a daily basis that create stress, conflict, controversy, and emotional responses. All of them theoretically generate meaning, but when I “listen to my thoughts” I recognize the unimportance of them.

And then I start searching for what really matters. Both to me, and about being human.

See you Sunday.

  • “Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Perceptions like that— latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time— all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust— to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them. Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.”

    – Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

    • Great quote. But how do you still appreciate/savor the “dead pig”, even if you see it for what it *really* is? Or can you choose which perception to believe without feeling like you’re deluding yourself?

      • Or you can just “sit with it” and realizing you are eating a dead fish. And be at peace with that.

  • The themes in this post really resonate with me for a few reasons…

    1. I’ve also been on the meditation bandwagon (thank you for the “Calm” app recommendation, btw, I’m addicted), and it’s helped a ton with my run-away mind. You’re absolutely right that the narrative we create in our minds (typically) doesn’t *really* matter, and that understanding helps me alter my own narrative to a more positive outlook.

    2. On that same note, I’m sure you watched the first episode of “Cosmos” this past weekend… nothing makes me feel like “nothing matters” more than thinking about how infinitesimal we really are in the Universe.

    3. The theory that “nothing matters” is both comforting (when my anxiety rears it’s screaming voices) and terrifying (because why bother doing anything at that point). If I let the idea run rampant, it saps my motivation, and the only thing that reignites it is the reality that I love what I’m working on, and that happiness/satisfaction is as good a reason to keep moving forward as any other. Would love to know if this feeling ever crosses your mind, and how you deal with it…

    Suffice to say, thanks for opening up the discussion.. this is one post I’m going to be keeping an eye on the comments of.

    • 2. Thanks for the reminder on Cosmos – I didn’t watch it, but will.

    • Great insight Char. Here’s Bill Murray with a little mindfulness humor… 🙂

  • Sounds like a crazy few hours! Great you laughed out loud, I’m sure I would feel self-conscious.

    I found Alan Watts lectures on consciousness enlightening, you might like them too by the sounds of things. He speaks a great deal about where the mind stops and the “stars” start. In other words what the “I” is in ones mind relative to the rest of the universe.

    The series I have is called Out of your Mind: the Nature of Consciousness by Alan Watts.

  • The answer may be Epigenetics: it’s the eternal hackathon. Keep hacking, someday we will be able reverse engineer all this coding and you’ll see just what an effect you are having.

    • For all of the others out there beside me that have no idea what Epigenetics means, here’s WikiPedia’s definition.

      “epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence; it also can be used to describe the study of stable, long-term alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell that are not necessarily heritable”

      • Think about that “inheritable” yet non-DNA. In plain language, you have the power to be related to almost everyone you “touch” .

  • Of course we don’t “matter” in the grand scheme – not in a self-important, record-book, special-beyond-all-compare way. They way we matter – and what really, really matters – is ourselves in relation to one another. Not just family, friends, colleagues. We are here for a just a spell; I think it’s important to shed the shackles of our egos and try to do good by others, by our environment, by the body of thought and knowledge humankind amasses. And perhaps go a little easier on ourselves.

  • Joseph Jones

    Your purpose… Brad, I can tell the meditation and life experience are creating new opportunities for discussion. This topic is near & dear to me; I’ve even listed my purpose in LinkedIn. In the past, I took a mindfulness course in effort to become more self-aware to become a better leader.

    “It’s not about you”, is one of my favorite quotes from Rick Warren. When you have 20 min, check out this TED talk that discusses purpose and stewardship:

    Much to talk about what happens when the “lights go out”… When you have 20 min, check out this TED talk that describes a near-death experience from the perspective of a brain scientist:

    • Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk, and subsequent book, is just wonderful.

      • Incredible insight in this talk into the reality that our thoughts and perceptions aren’t real at all. I think she had a phenomenal life experience, but not sure if she realizes how far it actually goes. I found it so insightful to mindfulness practice.

        Amy Cuddy: Passing As Myself
        The Story Collider


    struggled with “what does it all mean” for a very long time, then after 30 years it was as if
    a switch went off and I started to appreciate every day for what it was. Waking up and thanking someone, not sure who,
    for the sunrise, for my legs, for my eyes, for my wife, for my life and just appreciating
    every second. I was raised to believe in
    something after this, but I started living my life in case this is it. I also just read Bill Bryson’s “A Short
    History of Nearly Everything”, which blows my mind, and you start to realize how
    insignificant we really are and how lucky we are to even be here.

    • I’ve been meaning to read A Short History of Nearly Everything for a while. It’s now on my Kindle to be read next week when I’m off the grid.

  • JLM

    Having been a CEO for over 33 years, I can lend you some experience and truth. Really cheap rent, too.

    If you take every Friday off for the rest of your life, it will have NO impact on what happens in your world or the universe. Sorry but true.

    Wait, what may happen–no, WILL happen–is that you will have caught more fish, skied a bit more, loved your loved ones, painted a few houses and discovered more about who you really are. Not the outer man, the inner man. The little voice who speaks to you through your fears and is not impressed with our outer trappings of success.

    We all take ourselves way too seriously. Life is for living and enjoying. Don’t negotiate with yourself.

    That hair shirt you’re wearing, my friend, you made it for yourself. Throw overboard that bullshit guilt. It was invented to create the notion that growing up is something good for you. It isn’t.

    Go enjoy yourself. Do some good works and try to die broke because you did so many good works.

    We all need to take a vacation from our own dreary bullshit.

    But, hey, it could just be me. But then I’ve been skiing for more than a month this year.


    • Bingo. I will definitely use the line “We all need to take a vacation from our own dreary bullshit.”

      I try to do it for a week every quarter. While it’s not every Friday, going off the grid with my wife Amy has been transformative for our relationship and my life.

      My newest habit – Digital Sabbath – where I go offline from Friday night to Sunday morning – has also been amazing.

      Just spending time living, rather than being wrapped up in all our self-important and irrelevant noise, is such a delight.

  • Love is the Answer
    From Aloe Blacc’s great new album, Lift Your Spirits

  • williamhertling

    I’m still contemplating this idea of overestimating our importance to the universe. I’m still not sure what that means.

    I think I’m important to the people I have relationships with. Am I there for my kids? Am I present when I’m with them? I don’t think I could overestimate the importance of that. Did I help someone today? Do something kind? Those things seem to be important. Did I do something I enjoyed? It’s important to me.

    So is the human species important to the universe? Maybe not, but we’re important to ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I also found the conference thought provoking and exciting, and I hope we see more cross-discipline events like it.

    • I love your punch line – “So is the human species important to the universe? Maybe not, but we’re important to ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

      I agree with that completely. We make our own meaning – to ourselves. And when we focus on that, magic things happen.

      I was great seeing you and spending time with you.

    • Mary-Margaret Walker

      I love that line as well. May I quote you on it? “So is the human species important to the universe? Maybe not, but we’re important to ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

      • williamhertling


  • I love JLM’s perspective and this post in general.

    About 18 months ago, I started to think a lot about my own mortality, happiness and making the the most out of life in general. It started to get a bit of an obsession.

    Up to that point, work and money was always the most important thing in my life – long hours, lots of sacrifices. I remember trying to answer a question about my passions and interests out of work and it was quite embarrassing (best I could come up with was walking my dog).

    Between now and then I took 3 months off, then worked long and hard again for 8 months (same industry, same type of position – a mistake) and then just quit and took a break for another 3 months, vowing to do something entirely different next.

    I seem to find myself on either side of the spectrum (work hard, screw everything else or not work at all and just relax) and am currently on a path to try and find a good balance between doing something meaningful that I love and at the same time making sure I also take good care of my health, relationships etc.

    It’s funny how we seem to come to this realisation that life is short and precious and happiness is one of the most important things at some point in our life, normally sparked by some type of life event. Even though it’s frustrating, I am glad it hit me @ 35.

    • You are lucky – many people don’t notice this until they are 60+.

      I had a transformational experience at 35. I wrote about it in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur – http://startuprev.com/lifebook. Amy almost divorced me – she wasn’t angry with me, but she was done with being my life partner if I was going to continue on the path I was on, prioritizing the way I did.

      My first big positive move was to synchronize my words with my actions. I still worked incredibly hard, but when I said “Amy is the most important person to me”, I followed it up with behavior. I was in the moment when we were together. I answered the phone whenever she called. I took real vacations with her.

      I’m psyched it hit you at 35. Hopefully you have a lot of years in front of you.

      • Awesome that you had the realisation in time and more importantly took action and changed things.

        The bit I am struggling with is such realisations often involve significant value conflict (existing values are being challenged by new ones which are unnatural / taking some time to get to grips with).

        The one thing I decided today is to get help from a coach. I always benefited so much from a coach in my career – someone that can ask the right questions, provide a steer and get me thinking in new ways.

        Even though it’s frustrating, as you say I should feel lucky to be making this shift now!

        • Coaches are great.

          Working from a perspective of “core values” or “deeply held beliefs” is crucial. You can change these, but should only change them after much deep thought and reflection. Which is what it sounds like you are doing!

          • Do you (or have you) have a coach?

            I know you’ve mentioned many times the value (especially for a CEO) of a coach, but curious if you’ve gone down that path.

          • I’ve worked with several coaches over the years. My partners and I hired Nancy Raulston (http://www.perspective2.com/who1.html) when we first started Foundry Group. She was incredibly helpful to us.

            I’m very close personally to Jerry Colonna ( http://www.themonsterinyourhead.com/about-me/). While he’s never been a formal coach of mine, he’s worked with many people I know. And I would consider some of our conversations to be coaching.

            I’ve also had two relationships with therapists for extended periods – a psychiatrist for five years in my 20’s and currently a psychologist who I’ve been working with for almost a year.

          • I know Jerry as well, and feel fortunate to have had some of those same conversations. He’s an amazing person (and an amazing coach).

            I hope we can look forward to reading some posts about your experiences with a psychologist. Your posts about depression are very inspiring. I’ve never experienced depression, but it worries me about the possibility.

            Hearing from you and Jerry give a major amount of validity to the concern, but also provide additional hope and inspiration to overcome.

  • DJ

    “I believe the human species dramatically overvalues its importance to the universe.”

    Yes. Last weekend I did a meditation retreat in Sedona. It was great overall, but one thing kept gnawing at me. Several speakers talked about different meditation and spiritual practices that are “thousands of years old.” Practitioners of a variety of faiths and disciplines often use that phrase to create a sense of permanence and timeless wisdom.

    BUT… all I could think about was the fact that the mountains around us are tens of millions of years old, that at one point most of the terrain was underwater, that dinosaurs were around for far longer than hominids, that 10 million years ago a volcano in Yellowstone covered the entire North American continent with 10 feet of ash…

    And so on and so forth. I don’t have a takeaway or recommendation about what to do with that information except so say I think it’s important to reconnect with it on a regular basis.

    • As a species, we are tiny tiny tiny. The dinosaurs are such a powerful point of reference, and we understand so little about them. Meditating among the red rocks of Sedona must have been awesome.

  • brgardner

    My Dad told me a story when I was young that has stuck with me. He was a pilot in the Air Force with 3 young kids at home and was obviously traveling a lot. At that time my Mom and Dad were stationed in the Philippines. He had just gotten off a long 3-4 week trip and was suppose to be home for a couple of weeks before heading out again. He had just gotten home when he got a call that he was to be heading out again in the morning for an undisclosed amount of time. My mom told him she would not be around when he got back if he left. Two hours later he called his commander and told he wouldn’t be showing up in the morning.

    It was a turning point in my Fathers life. He was now in charge of his own life. 25 years later they have an incredible happy marriage, 5 children, 10 grand children, and is living an “fulfilling” life. My Dad transitioned to be a commercial and still travels frequently, but he is in charge.

  • I am not smart enough to know what it means to be human. I do know that as the world gets more and more digital, I like human contact that is face to face. I also know that the digital world has changed me by exposing me to more ideas (nice) but shortening my attention span (not nice).