“It’s impossible for me to die”

Julien Smith on the realities of modern safety and our misfiring flinch reflexes.

Julien Smith believes I won’t let him die.

The subject came up during our interview at Foo Camp 2012 — part of our ongoing foo interview series — in which Smith argued that our brains and innate responses don’t always map to the safety of our modern world:

“We’re in a place where it’s fundamentally almost impossible to die. I could literally — there’s a table in front of me made of glass — I could throw myself onto the table. I could attempt to even cut myself in the face or the throat, and before I did that, all these things would stop me. You would find a way to stop me. It’s impossible for me to die.”

[Discussed at the 5:16 mark in the associated video interview.]

Smith didn’t test his theory, but he makes a good point. The way we respond to the world often doesn’t correspond with the world’s true state. And he’s right about that not-letting-him-die thing; myself and the other people in the room would have jumped in had he crashed through a pane of glass. He would have then gone to an emergency room where the doctors and nurses would usher him through a life-saving process. The whole thing is set up to keep him among the living.

Acknowledging the safety of an environment isn’t something most people do by default. Perhaps we don’t want to tempt fate. Or maybe we’re wired to identify threats even when they’re not present. This disconnect between our ancient physical responses and our modern environments is one of the things Smith explores in his book The Flinch.

“Your body, all that it wants from you is to reproduce as often as possible and die,” Smith said during our interview. “It doesn’t care about anything else. It doesn’t want you to write a book. It doesn’t want you to change the world. It doesn’t even want you to live that long. It doesn’t care … Our brains are running on what a friend of mine would call ‘jungle surplus hardware.’ We want to do things that are totally counter and against what our jungle surplus hardware wants.” [Discussed at 2:00]

In his book, Smith says a flinch is an appropriate and important response to fights and car crashes and those sorts of things. But flinches also bubble up when we’re starting a new business, getting into a relationship and considering other risky non-life-threatening events. According to Smith, these are the flinches that hold people back.

“Your world has a safety net,” Smith writes in the book. “You aren’t in free fall, and you never will be. You treat mistakes as final, but they almost never are. Pain and scars are a part of the path, but so is getting back up, and getting up is easier than ever.”

There are many people in the world who face daily danger and the prospect of catastrophic outcomes. For them, flinches are essential survival tools. But there are also people who are surrounded by safety and opportunity. As hard as it is for a worrier like me to admit it (I’m writing this on an airplane, so fingers crossed), I’m one of them. A fight-or-flight response would be an overreaction to 99% of the things I encounter on a daily basis.

Now, I’m not about to start a local chapter of anti-flinchers, but I do think Smith has a legitimate point that deserves real consideration. Namely, gut reactions can be wrong.

Real danger and compromised thinking

To be clear, Smith isn’t suggesting we blithely ignore those little voices in the backs of our heads when a real threat is brewing.

“You can’t assume that you’re wrong, and you can’t assume that you’re right,” he said, relaying advice he received from a security expert. “You can just assume that you’re unable to process this decision properly, so step away from it and then decide from another vantage point. If you can do that, you’re fundamentally, every day, going to make better decisions.” [Discussed at 4:10]

I was surprised by this answer. I figured a guy who wrote a book about the detriments of flinches would compare threatening circumstances with other unlikely events, like lightning strikes and lottery wins. But Smith is doing something more thoughtful than rejecting fear outright. He’s working within a framework that challenges assumptions about our physical and mental processes. You can’t trust your brain or your body if you’re incapable of processing the threat. The success of your survival method, whatever it may be, depends on your capabilities. So, what you have to do is know when you’re compromised, get out of there, and then give yourself the opportunity to assess under better circumstances.

Other things from the interview

At the end of the interview I asked Smith about the people and projects he follows. He pointed toward Peter Thiel because he admires people who see different versions of the future. Smith also tracks the audacious moves made by startups, and he looks for ways those same actions and perspectives can be applied in non-startup environments. The goal is to to “see if we come up with a better society or a better individual as a result.”

You can see the full interview from Foo Camp in the following video:

Associated photo on home and category pages: Broken Glass on Concrete by shaire productions, on Flickr


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