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The Opposite of Evolution: How Easy Options Turn Us Into Mindless Hamsters

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The Abandoned Boy

When the boy was 10, his dad abandoned him. He had already lost his mom.

So the boy lived with his sister, alone, in the forest of Indiana. In what the boy called the "rough, unbroken forest that was a constant fight with trees and logs and grubs."

They shared a one-room log cabin. It had a dirt floor. It had a corn husk bed.

But the boy didn't have nothing. He had a copy of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

So the boy read it.

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He read it again.

He read it 10 times.

He read it 100 times.

He learned the hidden rhythms of the prose. He felt the weight of every word. He knew Prince Hamlet as he knew himself.

And much later, the boy became the President of the United States.

His name was Abraham Lincoln, and Hamlet was always in his heart. He spoke like a poet, and his words changed the world.

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." -Abraham Lincoln

200 Years Later

Fast forward 200 years.

I'm sitting at a San Francisco park bench with a copy of Hamlet on my lap.

If Lincoln looked into Hamlet and saw how to wield his words, perhaps I could too.
So I started reading.

Its language was a labyrinth. Its characters were complex. Hamlet would not give me a thing unless I gave it just as much in return.

And ... I gave up.

Hamlet sat on a "things I can read right now" shelf in my mind. Also sitting on the shelf were every eBook on Amazon, every sports article on ESPN.com and every snippet of thought on Twitter.

I went back to the shelf for something easier.

The Green Album

I was in high school. It was 11:59AM. I was famished.

But when the bell rang, I didn't eat. I ran to my car. I wasn't sure if I'd have enough time.

I skidded into the parking lot. I ran into the record store. And there it was: Weezer's second album.

I ripped off the plastic wrapper with my teeth. I slid the CD in.

Volume up. Seat reclined. I disappeared.

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I wasn't in my car. I was wherever the music wanted me to be. Every beat, every chord and every word wove together to become a strange beast. I savored every moment.

The Piano Poet

Fast forward 15 years.

You have probably never heard of Ludovico Einaudi. He is a small, bald man who lives in Northern Italy.

But Ludovico has a special talent. He plays the piano like a damn poet.

The best music tells us things we don't have words for. Ludovico's music swells in my heart, and I can't even begin to explain how.

So when his latest album dropped, I expected myself to do what I did with Weezer. Find a moment of solitude. Close my eyes. Savor it.

I did the opposite. I played it in the background while I worked. It was cheap ambiance.

Something had changed in me. The prospect of simply sitting and listening to music felt daunting.

Airport Romance

I was waiting in line to board the plane at Boston Logan Airport. And there she was. A straight up cutie.

Was that eye contact? 87% sure that was eye contact.

We boarded the plane. OK Peterson. Time to make something happen. And there was a problem.

She sat in another row, in the middle seat. How do you talk to someone in the middle seat of another row?

But I had to do something, right? This was the pre-dating-app Wild West. You were either a cowboy who made something happen or, quite simply, nothing happened.

So I wrote her a note.

I folded my boarding pass in half, and slipped the note inside. I walked up. "Hey -- I think you dropped your boarding pass earlier."

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I was a cowboy.

Airport Cowardice

Fast-forward 10 years.

I'm in the Seattle-Tacoma airport. And there she was. A ridiculously cute cutie.

We boarded the plane. OK Peterson. Time to make something happen.

I ... took out my iPhone. Oh hey there dating apps. You're filled with tiny cards that represent girls I can talk to instantly?

What was I thinking about? Oh right, that girl. Maybe I can find her later on Facebook.

I didn't.

Tools That Shape Us

Since the dawn of humanity we've shaped our tools, and our tools have shaped us.

We made the clock, and the clock made us view time as a series of chunks. We made the map, and the map made us view the world as flat. And recently we made the "unlimited options" tools.

We now have the ability to read almost any written work in the history of humanity, listen to almost any song ever recorded, and explore seemingly unlimited romantic possibilities. Instantly.

But like the clock and the map before them, these tools shape us. Unlike our predecessors, we need the willpower to choose the options that are not the easiest.

Abraham Lincoln either read Hamlet or didn't read. John the Weezer Fan either savored the album or listened to whatever was on the radio. John the Cowboy either talked to that girl or didn't meet anyone. They didn't have much of a choice.

Modern John had unlimited reading options, yet he couldn't appreciate great literature. Modern John had unlimited music options, yet he couldn't savor music. Modern John had unlimited romantic options, yet he couldn't be romantic.

He lacked the willpower to choose the options that were not the easiest. And these easy options are everywhere.

Facebook gave us easy connection options but made calling or seeing someone in person into a harder option. Smartphones gave us easy things-to-do-while-bored options but turned silent introspection into a harder option. And one day, AIs will give us easy companionship options but turn meeting new people into a harder option.

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Now of course, we accept these options for a reason.

Without Amazon I would have never discovered my favorite book. Without Spotify I would have never found my favorite music to write to. Without dating apps thousands who have found love would still be single.

So how do we embrace this abundance without becoming mindless hamsters with every option in the world but an inability to get out of bed in the morning?

The Willpower Gas Tank

Willpower is like fuel in a gas tank. Every time we resist temptation we burn some fuel. And when our tank runs out we give in.

So when we want to diet, we eliminate temptations. We don't walk around carrying a candybar in our pocket.

Yet we do this with everything else. We read books on the same devices that tempt us with notifications. We bring our phones to dinner.

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So like all great truths, the answer is simple yet challenging. Get rid of the easy options that you don't want yourself to choose. Don't read books on your iPad. Don't bring your phone to dinner.

Think back on your life: In the areas that matter most to you, what were you like before you had more options? Seriously -- stop reading right now and take a trip back in time.

You may find a person with the courage to actually call someone to schedule a first date, the discipline to work in solitude for hours, or the peace of mind to view life's slow moments as opportunities to simply sit and think.

Or you might not. How we've changed, what we value and what we can realistically eliminate from our lives is totally personal.

A Chance to Be Noble

In this way, life is harder now. It takes effort to take your book to the park. It takes patience to listen to music without doing something else. And as insane as this feels to type, it takes courage to leave your phone at home.

But there's something heroic in the person who ignores the options on Tinder to approach that stranger. There's something noble in the person who rides public transportation in phoneless introspection. And there's something touching in the friend who, on our birthday, calls us to greet us live.

So while these things are harder, hard things give us something. A chance to be heroic. To be noble. To be touched.

And this effort is worth it.

Because you never know what hard books can teach you. You never know what wordless truths hide in your music. And you never know what lies behind the eyes of that stranger in the airport.

These examples are specific, but they represent something sacred to the human race. It's worth protecting.

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P.S.

This story originally appeared on Medium. If you want to see more of my stories, Follow me there. And of course, feel free to e-mail me. I'd love to hear from you.

If you're in San Francisco, check out my startup Livday. Our app makes it 100x easier to find and do amazing things in your free time.

The stunning title photo in this article is by my good friend and Dreamworks artist Danny Langston. Feel free to e-mail Danny praise and/or freelance jobs. Thank you!