Redesigning normal life to optimize for our Paleolithic brain and body.
At 25 years-old I had a normal life. I was miserable, caught in a trap.
Since childhood I have been fascinated with understanding people. I sought the answers in books and observation. It led me to Psychology. I was fascinated, yet unsatisfied, it did not provide clear answers. I pursued it in University, yet also pursued Mathematics as a hard, clear counterbalance to the soft, contradictory teachings of Psychology.
In University I learned a lot. But the more I learned, the more disappointed I became. Although Psychology offered many insights, it lacked both a coherent model of human behavior and methods to help people change. Psychotherapy had promise, but both Psychoanalysis and Humanistic Therapy schools offered vague promises of change in a time of years. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and its young cousin, NLP, offered pragmatic, quicker results. Yet, science shows they often lack permanence because they treat the symptoms of the problems, without addressing the underlying cause. At the end of my University studies, I pursued neither. Rather I went into market research, where I could continue to get better at understanding people’s behavior and their motivations. The price was that I had to use this knowledge to help companies persuade people. I was young and ambitious and thought I could ignore the ethical dilemma. In a few years, I rose to success in the field.
In the meantime, my personal life had been careening off the tracks. At 25 I had an existential crisis. I was prisoner in a life I did not choose, and that I could not control. I had abandonment issues coupled with social anxiety. I could be charming and friendly in the moment, but the anxiety took a toll and prevented healthy long-term relationships. I worked too much because I had been taught that I am valuable if I am hardworking and I do as I am told. I was successful in my job, even if I could not ignore that most of what I did was pointless because it did not help anybody. I distracted myself from the void inside with tobacco, entertainment, social media, internet, food. I ate to feel good, not to nourish myself.
The solutions available did not help me. I did not even know what I wanted because ‘normal’ was so awful.
I could say all of this was the fault of my parents for divorcing when I was a child. That this made me anxious about social relationships and distrustful of people. That it created a predisposition for dependency as a gratification to make the pain go away. That this was transformed into a food disorder by a grandma using food to create joy. Which meant fries, candy, soda, snacks, and few vegetables, or healthy, home-cooked meals. That workaholism came from a need to prove worth in the absence of a father figure to validate it.
Being the result of my childhood made a victim, stuck in a personality formed by forces outside my control. I re-considered psychotherapy, but it would only dig into the cause further, without providing any way to change.
What saved me was a childhood belief that I had the potential to do great things. This clashed with this victim persona. And I felt that if I did not soon change, the victim persona would become permanent, for life. I felt I had short, closing window of time until this would happen.
Spurred by this crisis, I decided to tackle the most obvious problem: obesity and overeating. I quit overnight the biggest offenders: sugar and bread. It was hard, and painful, but I had the motivation of believing this was my last chance to avoid a miserable life. In less than two weeks, I started seeing positive results. The feedback helped spur me further. After one month, the results were obvious. They were doubled by social validation for the change. And the sugar cravings had disappeared.
It has seemed impossible to change myself. But I had done it.
This was a turning point. It launched me into a series of self-changes, such as:
- quitting smoking,
- going through numerous different eating patterns to find the elusive healthy diet (nutrition is made to appear a complicated subject),
- many versions of a daily routine, depending on what I was working on,
- changing anxiety and stimulation-seeking for meditation and grounding routines,
- changing from a burning-out workaholic to working less time than everyone around me, but producing much more and better because of clear focus,
- letting go of the crutch of a plateauing workplace to jump into an unknown field, and then having the flexibility and courage to carve my own job-role,
- changing the role of social relationships from quelling my fear of abandonment, to fulfilling non-dependent relationships. This meant pruning a lot of old relationships, embracing solitude, to find much more meaningful ones,
- repairing distraught and blame-oriented family relationships to create real connections,
- accepting help and trusting someone else,
- accepting own failings to then work to improve them, accepting I will always be imperfect,
- accepting a change mindset, instead of the fixed personality mindset,
- taking responsibility for everything in my life,
- letting go of cultural and socially taught goals and measures of life,
- rejecting the life imposed by society, to search, and find, my own mission in life
It has been so much, that I can say that I am a different person than 8 years ago. Even more, I have been many different people through this journey. This journey took a new turn when I realized that my life mission is not to change myself for the better anymore, rather it is to help others change themselves for the better.
Initially I re-investigated the models from Psychology, Therapy, Coaching, the many Self-Help books. Yet none really work reliably. They either err into ignoring the power of the unconscious, and rely on (fickle) willpower. Or they revolve around explaining a fixed personality that you cannot change consciously. Or they preach that telling yourself you are different is enough to make you different. So I researched, read, wrote, thought and experimented.
The key to health and happiness is to understand what shaped our body’s and mind’s evolution.
It took many years to create a coherent model of the mind. I called it Avantgarde Savage because the key to understanding human behaviour lies into going further than childhood, to our species past. It means understanding that the mind appeared to ensure our survival by predicting the future. That the unconscious predicts the future and ensures survival because the conscious is just not fast or powerful enough. Thus the unconscious decides behaviour most of the time. The conscious is a newer evolutionary development that appeared for long-term adjustment, planning and adaptation to unexpected environment changes. But it has almost no power for in-the moment decisions. We only have a little willpower, which we must use wisely.
My ideal: design a lifestyle that satisfies our Paleolithic biology without any of the costs of Paleolithic life.