Recently a reader emailed me a note: “I just wanted to bring to your radar ‘the pleasures and sorrows of work’ by Alain de Botton, and what you thought of its theses.” Now de Botton (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life) has been on my radar for a while. I had browsed his books at Barnes and Noble a few times, but always put them down due to strange, sick feelings in my stomach. Thanks to this reader’s gentle nudge, I finally caved and read the first of the three, and managed to figure out why de Botton’s books had made me viscerally uncomfortable at first glance: he is my evil twin. An evil twin is defined as somebody who thinks exactly like you in most ways, but differs in just a few critical ways that end up making all the difference. Think the Batman and the Joker. Here’s why evil twins matter, and how to discover yours.
Why Evil Twins Matter
In the closing scene of Batman Begins, Commissioner Gordon tells the Batman that a new villain is abroad who has “a taste for theatrics, like you” and shows him the Joker’s calling card. The premise of the evil twin setup plays out in the sequel, the The Dark Night. Towards the end, Heath Ledger’s disturbing Joker elaborates on the logic: “I wouldn’t kill you! What would I do without you? …You complete me.”
Comic book universes provide plenty of examples of this fundamental idea, that your nemesis is not a polar opposite, but an eerily similar person who is just different in a few subtle but critical ways. Some narratives in fact present the nemesis as a polarity within one character, as in the Jekyll and Hyde model and more recently, the Hulk.
If you think about it, this makes sense. Your nemesis has to be interested in the same things as you, operate in the same areas, and think and act at levels of sophistication similar to yours. Polar opposites would live lives that would likely not even intersect. List the 10 most important elements of your social (not private) identity. In my case for instance, they might be PhD, researcher, omnivorous reader, writer, individualist, polymath-wannabe, coffee-shop person, non-athletic, physically lazy, amoral, atheistic and so forth. If you turned them all around, you’d get something like high-school drop-out, non-reader, groupie, parochial, pub person, sportsy, physically active, moral and religious. I am no snob, but it is highly unlikely that I’d have much to do with somebody with that profile.
On the other hand, if you meet somebody to whom every adjective applies, but they rub you the wrong way at a deep level, what are you to conclude? The clash has to be at the most subtle levels of your personality. Meeting your evil twin helps you find yourself, which is why you should look. Of course, I am being somewhat facetious here. You don’t have to hate your evil twin or battle him/her to the death. You can actually get along fine and even complement each other in a yin-yang way.
de Botton, Taleb and Me
Take Alain de Botton for instance. Despite my “evil twin” adjective, I think I’d like him a lot and get along with him quite well. No climactic battles. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is just beautiful as a book. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I write a lot on the philosophy of work. The book literally produced dozens of thoughts and associations in my head on every page. Since I was reading it on the Kindle, I was annotating and highlighting like crazy. We think about the same things. He opens with a pensive essay on container shipping logistics, something I’ve written about. The Shawshank Redemption with its accountant hero is one of my favorite movies; de Botton finds romance in the profession as well. I’ve written about ship-breaking graveyards, he writes about airplane graveyards. He seems fascinated by aerospace stuff. I am an aerospace engineer. He sees more romance in a biscuit factory than in grand cathedrals. So do I. Like me (only more successfully) he shoots for an introspective, lyrical style. But as I continued reading, I realized I was intellectually a little too close to the guy.
When I tried putting my notes all together, the feelings of discomfort only intensified. There was no coherent pattern to my responses. I realized that, in a way, you can only build one picture at a time with a given set of jigsaw pieces. Writers normally leave enough room for you to construct meaning so you feel a sense of control over the reading experience. With evil twins, that’s not possible, since you are trying to build different pictures. I felt absorbed in the book, but also confused and disoriented by it.
Thinking harder, I realized that the points of conflict in our worldviews were at a very abstract level indeed. In a deep sense, de Botton’s worldview is that of an observer. Mine, though I do observe and write a lot, is primarily that of a get-in-the-fray doer. He is content to watch. I feel compelled to engage. He admires engineers and engineering; I felt compelled to become one and get involved in building stuff. It is a being-vs.-becoming dynamic.To a certain extent, he is driven by needs of an almost religious nature: to overcome his sense of separateness and be part of something larger than himself. My primary instinct is to separate myself. It is a happiness vs. will-to-power dynamic. One last example. de Botton is clearly a humanist: he wants to be kind and feel for others, and paradoxically, ends up being quite cruel in places. I, on the other hand, am mainly driven by a deep ubermensch tendency towards hard/cold interpersonal attitudes, but end up surprising myself by being kind and compassionate more often, in practice. Kind cruelty vs. tough love. I could go on.
Another of my evil twins is Nicholas Nassim Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan). I am re-reading the latter at the moment, and I noticed that Taleb describes himself as a flaneur. In the comments to my piece, Is there a Cloudworker Culture? a reader noted that my self-description as a cloudworker sounded a lot like the idea of a flaneur. Again, a lot of the exact same things interest us, and we share opinions on a lot of key fronts (the nature of mathematics, empiricism and falsifiability, unapologetic elitist tastes, long-windedness, low tolerance for idiots and the accidentally wealthy, a preference for reading books rather than the news). And again, we part ways at a deep level. That’s a story for another day.
So before we move on to the How-To section, a recommendation. If you feel strangely attracted to my writing, and yet rebel against it at some deep level, you might really (and unreservedly) love de Botton and/or Taleb. I am too close to their thinking to do justice to them with book reviews, but you should read them. If the books help you clarify who you are, and you end up dropping ribbonfarm from your reading list, I’ll consider it my good deed for the day.
How to Find Your Evil Twin
In my case, my evil twins mostly turn out to be writers I’ve never met. Sometimes dead writers. That’s because so much of my life revolves around books and ideas. I suspect most people have a pretty good chance of actually meeting and getting to know their evil twins.
The key things to look for are the following:
- You share a lot of interests, down to very specific details like books read, places visited, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds (though oddly enough, not race or ethnicity).
- Your thinking levels are similar, and your conceptual categories for viewing the world are similar
- You try to act in the world in very similar ways; you choose similar means and ends
- You reach similar conclusions about what is, what ought to be, what you should do and how
- If you ever meet them in person, you instantly resonate with them
That sounds like “soulmate” right? Now for the differential that will discriminate between soulmate and evil twin:
- If you are straight, they are the same gender as you. If you are gay, I don’t know.
- You lean in different directions on key philosophical tradeoffs. For example, if you both believe “truth vs. kindness” is a fundamental tradeoff, you lean towards truth, while he/she leans towards kindness.
- On the important question of attitude towards others, you are clearly different. You want different things from other people and the world at large.
So go, look for your evil twin. You will be enlightened by what you find. If you already know who yours are, I am curious. Post a comment (suitably anonymized if necessary).