editorial note: I started the makings of this post a few weeks ago when I was home in Houston and decided to publish it now, so the “today” is then.
While writing today and listening to some lo-fi, I was struck by an intense sense of nostalgia for my days in high school. There’s something about the cool air of the AC unit mingling with the residual anxiety of flying in COVID-world that reminded me of hot Houston summers sitting in class and dreading the next thing on my schedule (perhaps the biggest factor was I was with my parents in Houston because our present selves are highly contextual). High school me lived in perpetual fear of the new and the next and the future. I was basically in survival mode all the time. I felt suffocated by the pressure and restrained by the expectations.
I got good grades and did the “right” things with extracurriculars and volunteering and so on and so forth primarily out of an instinct for survival rather than out of a genuine curiosity or a desire for fun. I rarely felt at peace and comforted in my day-to-day at that time. Survival mode is synonymous with scarcity mindset in a lot of ways. You narrow your focus to optimize for one key objective and ruthlessly cut anything out if it doesn’t meet the heuristic for what is necessary to keep moving forward. It meant feelings like enjoying that creative writing exercise or hating running for the sake of competition or relishing video games were unacceptable. When they appeared, those feelings were quickly cut off from the main body, quarantined before the main population was corrupted.
I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of psychological oxygen. It’s a concept from Jan Tønnesvang which essentially describes the state where all your mental needs have been met and you’re free to freely express your creativity and authentic expressions as desired. This is the mental state of abundance, the opposite of a state of survival and of scarcity. It describes a state where you’re not only able but also encouraged to pursue and accept your honest desires, feelings, and instincts. It’s a state of rest for your mind — the baseline requirement for any attempt to ascend beyond your current self’s capabilities.
I’m realizing that the education system in America does a pretty poor job of providing psychological oxygen. Everything from what you choose to do in your free time to who you hang out with to which test prep booklet you buy to the prestige and connections of the club teacher to word #357 on college essay #23 for application #6 is immensely important, life-or-death important, in fact. This mindset is what natural selection optimizes for in our education system. Success is measured by whether you got into the top 20 schools (regardless of how well they fit your personal educational desires). The ones who “get it” and learn how to play the game do well and go on to form the role models for the next set of candidates. They’re the ones that parents tell their children to learn from, to be more like, the role models of society that made it. It pays to understand the mechanics of the game (techniques to maximize score in standardized testing, optimizing AP studying to avoid marginal returns above the 4/5 threshold, getting the right sound bites for your club officer titles, and making friendly connections with the right sorts of people who can put the word in the right sorts of places). And it pays to be paid well for understanding the game. And of course, it’s much easier if your family already understands the shape of the game of society.
I saw this dynamic exemplified in Operation Varsity Blues, a documentary on the college admissions scandal of 2019, where a college admissions coach coordinated “side doors” for guaranteed admission into aforementioned exclusive universities. Well-known families paid the low cost of hundreds of thousands to guarantee admission for their students (as opposed to the sanctioned “back door” of donating ~$50 million). I wasn’t struck so much by these parents’ criminal instincts rather than the intensity of their perception of the necessity of the prestige of going to an exclusive college was. This is all part of the cemented myth of accreditation, where people are striving to go to exclusive colleges for the very fact that they are exclusive rather than for any other match to learning propensities. We’ve been conditioned to live to mimic a narrative that society deems correct rather than to live according to our own feelings. Life is a performance and we are the actors and actresses that have a proper role to play for the show to go on, especially if we want to move up to a bigger role.
However, one positive side effect from this environment is that exclusivity and desire and a ruthless competition for spots also turns out to collect a set of driven, passionate, and (sometimes) kind people. Even if you have to play the game, it takes work to do it properly, so naturally the people who come in have passed some bar for capability to produce effort. Because of this, even if you recognize the myth, you still have to play the game to get there because it’s where the scenes are. I’ve started to call the process of finding these sorts of scenes that you can involve yourself in, feel inspired by, and feel safe to contribute experimentally finding your vibe tribe. The particulars of the environment (the classes, the city, the dining) are important too, but they are mere details compared to the vibe of the people and the energy that you feel in a place. And it turns out that these exclusive universities have a great scene for energy and passion. Is this true for other lesser-known colleges and it’s just not as well-advertised, and if not, how can you bring this kind of scene to every educational campus?
And instead of framing success around the acquisition of a scarce set of credentials, what if we thought about success as finding this community of people that provides you the psychological oxygen?
I wonder: what would it look like for an education system to provide psychological oxygen by default? A place that is a safe space for students to freely pursue their passion and their intuitions and their curiosities. And when I say safe space, I don’t mean a place where conflict is avoided and monotony is encouraged but rather a place where conflict is given the proper space to air in a healthy manner, here the exchange of ideas is free and passionate and promoted, where diversity of opinion is welcomed inherently because of the newness it brings and where it’s safe to assume people are of good intent and push people towards committing actually good action.
(i had a tweet here that said something to the effect of “a conflict-free space is the opposite of a safe space” but looks like it’s been taken down, so pretend this is the tweet).
This is what a vibe tribe is for, a space that fosters psychological oxygen by default. A community where you can be yourself and feel encouraged rather than pressured to create and express yourself authentically. A space where you can be gently inspired towards self-actualization (a “gentle inspired start” from John Maeda).
College is where people try to find their vibe tribe because there’s this perception that you meet no new friends outside of college. While it is certainly much much harder, I think that perception is self-defeating and almost makes it taboo to venture out beyond the traditional gathering places and rituals of recent graduates. The new grad bubble takes hold through house warmings and new hire bootcamp classes as the barrier to taking the leap into something new and unknown grows ever higher.
I would love if the dynamic shifted to encourage this kind of thing more. We should normalize going to an event or participating in an activity that is completely outside the realm of normal consideration. I remember discussing with Raymond this idea of bubble hopping (the podcast describes someone who started a tradition of polling a random event from Facebook and attend it regularly, a particularly poignant example involving a Russian family’s birthday party) and wanting to try it out once we moved to SF, but we never got around to committing. I’m hoping to be able to dust off and apply this experiment in a post-vaccine society.
Because we’re limited in our outlets for discovering vibes in our community, more and more people are venturing out on social media outlets like Twitter to find their vibe tribe online. It’s also why people are taking the gamble in showing very honest vignettes of themselves online, risking shame and ostracization for finding new tribe members. This raw, honest display acts like a platonic mating call or an SOS signal for friends. It’s a signal for your vibe, shining a bunch of lights into the vast digital ether of thoughts and feelings and attacks and memes in the hope that some set of people will see it, vibe with it, and reach out to dive into something you put into the world.
It’s these fleeting opportunities for connection that provide infinite returns on investment because it involves such little effort to be potentially rewarded. There’s no pressure that you have to vibe or get along, it’s just opening the door to allow it to happen. It’s making yourself available to the maximal amount of opportunities. And some would say that’s the real trappings of success when you’re able to maximize your exposure to good opportunities and take advantage of them when they come along.
I’m always looking for new members of my vibe tribe. If this resonates, I’d love to have a conversation.
Some other tools that have been interesting to me in this space of finding your vibe tribe
Dialup: app that seeds random calls about certain topics with people across the world
Twitter: apparently the most “niche” social media (age-wise?) which makes it work well for finding a niche group of people which satisfy your vibe tribe signals.
Reddit: niche communities around topics via subreddits. 0 barrier to entry but also encourages lurkers because psychological oxygen is not as present at rest.
Discord: helps people form a conversational community around a specific topic or activity with a slightly higher barrier to entry but makes each participant more likely to be invested / participatory unlike Reddit. Slightly higher psychological oxygen as a result but still a barrier to posting
small group chats / 1:1 DMs: high psychological oxygen space when it’s someone you’re very close to, no filter,
This intersection between something completely public (ala Twitter) and things that feel more intimate (like Discord, Dialup, small group chats / 1:1 DMs) has been fascinating to me lately. More on this soon…
This is the 2nd installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.