Your Evil Twins and How to Find Them

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:

  1. 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).
  2. Your thinking levels are similar, and your conceptual categories for viewing the world are similar
  3. You try to act in the world in very similar ways; you choose similar means and ends
  4. You reach similar conclusions about what is, what ought to be, what you should do and how
  5. 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:

  1. If you are straight, they are the same gender as you. If you are gay, I don’t know.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I have not found one. It has always been a either/or! Or, more likely, I do not invest as much time in reading a book as you do! :)

  2. Still searching for mine. You are suitably happy that you have found a few of yours. Perhaps they shouldn’t be called twins, but instead “tuplets” of some type, depending on the number of evil twins you’re able to uncover, dead or alive.

    One of the pre-requisites is a very clear definition of what “I” am. In my experience, not many people are sufficiently capable of a sustained introspective analysis of themselves to be able to draw clear conclusions. I would contend that most people get lazy, distracted or discouraged along the way, leaving themselves with a vague and viscerally gut feeling that this guy (or gal) just rubs you the wrong way even though you two may have initially clicked. That’s where your handy heuristic to spotting your evil twin becomes useful :)

  3. My evil twins are Malcolm Gladwell & Timothy Ferriss. Gladwell because we both have omnivorous interests but I value accuracy more and he values a good story more. Ferriss because we both aim to optimize life, me more towards outward value and him more towards fulfilling personal goals.

  4. Diane Foley says:

    Alain de Botton is one of my favorite authors, but I enjoy Ribbonfarm too. I did not detect an evil twin pair, maybe because I enjoy reading well -observed insights about real day to day modern life.
    I met my evil twin ( Actually I was the evil one)- no one famous- just a coworker. Your observation that one key philosophical difference can split the two of you into good vs evil is very accurate. It is not possible to collaborate with your opposite twin.

  5. Oh my, now, after Diane’s comment, I can think of an evil twin – someone who I agree with almost all the time except for few narrow differences. Of course, she is someone I worked with before!

  6. @Diane @Divya … Women seem to operate by a notion of “frenemy” which has always puzzled me.

    @otoburb … not sure you need high self-awareness to recognize an evil twin. The identification tends to be instantaneous. I remember feeling this way about a few kids even in middle school.

    @Diane: Interesting that you took care to point out “I was the evil one.” I assume a relativist moral framework where the 2 in a pair mutually represent evil to each other. I can see that there might be interesting reasons to go absolute. In the Batman/Joker pair, conventionally speaking, the Joker is obviously the evil one, though I kinda like him more.

    @Xianhang Ferriss is an interesting choice. Not sure what you mean by ‘outward value’ though… do you mean the amount of good you do in the world or something? I dislike Ferriss because he seems to have succumbed to too many moral hazards, but a “good” counterpart to him is Stanley Bing, (Executricks).

    Gladwell, I honestly think, is just a bad thinker, whether in narrative or empirical-accuracy mode. Stories are just another way to probe the truth, but it takes a certain mindset to write those stories, rather than writing the crowd-pleaser stories.

    Oddly, stories are a point where I differ with Taleb. He is kinda like you, and is suspicious of all stories (a part of the Black Swan is titled “The Narrative Fallacy.”) I, OTOH, pretty much always choose stories over data, which I suspect of sustaining illusory bubbles of security. But they have to be stories told with epistemlogical intent, not self-delusion or aimed at the cheap seats.

  7. @venkat frenemy puzzles me too, I don’t have one, don’t understand people who have one.

  8. Guess I’m the evil twin, @Divya cuz I’m a fan of joker’s eccentricity and love for fun! LOL. Although I think Batman is an encapsulation of 2 personalities too, the man behind the mask and Bruce Wayne.

  9. Great post. I’ve encountered a couple of my own evil twins in my reading, though not as clearcut as between you and de Botton. I think one of the fascinations of evil twins is the “there but for the grace of Go go I” factor — a sort of revulsion that you’re so close to the twin in so many ways that you could possibly slip over to the dark side in areas in which you disagree. Another aspect is frustration: This person is so close to my way of thinking, why do they persist in what I regard as fundamental errors?

    Oh, and for the record: From my point of view you have twin-like aspects but no real tendency to evilness as far as I’m concerned. (I thought you went a bit heavy of the ubermensch stuff a time or two, but that’s about it.)

    • (Sorry, I of course meant “there but for the grace of the Supreme Deity”, not that of the Asian board game.)

    • Well, the “evil” bit was rhetorical grandstanding anyway :)

      I think it is a very specific sort of “there but for the grace of god go I” that we see in evil twins (I think the usual example for that sentiment is a rich man looking at a poor man… more outward material condition than inward philosophical condition). But yeah, there is that mix of fear and relief at being so close to a position you don’t want to be in.

      Your comment reminded me (yet again) of the Onion piece Why can’t anyone tell I am wearing this business suit ironically?

  10. Here’s the evil twin of your post:
    http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0404-APR_AMERICA

    • This is insane! The Esquire piece also uses Batman/Joker as an example and has a bullet-list recognition algorithm. Amazing.

      His idea of a nemesis is close to my evil twin definition. I’ll have to think about whether I have archenemies. Don’t know if I am capable of that kind of visceral hatred.

      Great minds think alike. I hate this Chuck Klosterman guy :)

  11. I think I’ve found mine. I can’t say too much, in case he’s watching.

  12. Hey, your post kept throwing up my evil twin candidates right from school to co-workers to, of course, many authors. Candidates but not exactly confirmed… for some reason, it feels like one should not be too liberal in honoring many by calling them one’s evil twins!

    Authors are obvious candidates (am currently reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion… hmmm…). Here’s a thought: Authors probably write *for* their evil twins. They may make their moolah from the masses but their real fame comes from their evil twin readers, which often includes critics.

    As I normally don’t notice typos here (ignoring harmless ones): I think you meant climactic battles, not climatic ones. Unless you had some kind of weather dynamic thought, like a sunny personality versus… :-)

    So, if someone who is almost alike but differs in one fundamental aspect is an evil twin, what would you call someone who is apparently totally different but somehow connects at a deep level?

  13. That’s an interesting insight, that authors probably write for their evil twins. Probably true in some cases (a variety of anxiety of influence), but I think people preach to the choir as often.

    Writing for your evil twin would carry too much of a defensive burden. Like writing academic papers… I dislike defensive writing, and prefer to deal with “yes, but” comments as they come along.

    Totally different+connects… not sure what that would be. Some marriages are probably like that. But I don’t know of any such anti (evil-twin) people in my life.

    And thanks for spotting the typo. Fixed.

  14. this was kind of what i was thinking the first time i started reading the black swan by taleb. his words spoke to me and the more i read, the more i got engrossed into it.

    thanks for putting these thoughts into words, it would’ve taken me quite some more time to put it together myself.

    another ‘evil twin’ from the world of books would be jim collins, but i’m not entirely sure how :)

  15. I just discovered your blog through the Gervais Perspective article posted linked from Slashdot. It was very interesting to read this post directly after the GP post. My favorite line, that I believe links concepts between the two, is when you write that your relationship with de Botton “is a happiness vs. will-to-power dynamic.” Perhaps the real tension rests in that your perspectives on the world largely match, yet your conclusions and reactions are diametrically opposed. You chose sociopath, and he chose the self-aware slacker loser model. As you mentioned in the GP article, “suffice it to say that it divides people into those who get how the world really works (the sociopaths and the self-aware slacker losers).” You both get it, and you get it in the same way, and he becomes you’re evil twin because he chose the opposite path… the “evil” path.

    Keep up the good work. Loving your blog.

  16. I’ve got one! And we’re good friends, having learned quite a bit from each other. The strange thing is that, over the years, our divergent areas have come slightly closer together. I’d say a core difference is his adherence to substance over style, or perhaps more appropriately truth over illusions, while I see “truth” as just another layer to the illusion, with style & substance inextricably linked.

  17. I don’t want to fawn too much, but when I started reading your site here much of it resonated instantly. For instance, I have never met another polymath-wannabe.

    I think the best descriptor of this is “rear-gunner”: someone who is flying in the same direction but aims his gun opposite yours.

  18. Great post, makes you think a lot and I love the batman comparison to your whole idea. =]]

  19. I think my best friend turned out to be my evil twin but i may be wrong. Still looking.

  20. Love the post and the blog.

    Finding a real life evil twin is great, dealing with them is a whole ‘nother issue. I would love to read more/find pointers toward actually dealing with an ‘evil twin’ that you half despise, yet know there is something to learn from on a deep level.

  21. I ended up destroying mine and almost destroyed myself.
    Pray you never find your evil twin.
    There are more sane ways to look in the mirror.

  22. I’m sitting next to mine right now. The only thought where we differ is a sort of practical vs. ‘ideal’ way of doing and thinking about things. For instance, I’m presently pro-Israel due to the present state of the world and their country; he disagrees because he sees the Palestinean people as ‘oppressed’, regardless of their impact on the Israeli people. Having an evil twin is a wonderful way to grow.

  23. TooEmbarassedToUseRealName says:

    Except for the “straight then same gender” criteria, I met my evil twin… and married him.

    He seemed like the man most likely in all the world to provide awesome conversations for the rest of my life. I think he married me for the conversation as well :-)

  24. I actually think you’re my evil twin.

    We’re close to the same part of the world (I’m a math PhD student with forays into start-up world and a tendency to speculate beyond my field). We’re both individualists. And everything you’ve written has struck me as both *very close to right* and *indefinably unsettling.*

    Part of the unsettling aspect seems to be that I’m a good deal more “worldly” in attitude than you — more concerned with money, more short-term, more hedonistic, more of an idealist. I don’t have an academic temperament. I run a lot hotter. So there’s something about the philosophical attitude that rubs me the wrong way.

    Peter Thiel is almost an evil twin, but I’d be more likely to simply call him an influence. His ideas often *ring true* in a way that gives me no dissonance at all. Then again, there’s a Machiavellianism there that makes me uncomfortable.

    • Awesome :)

      I think I like the phrase “I run a lot hotter.” That differentiates me from a lot of people. I “run a lot colder” than most people. I might almost be a reptile, philosophically speaking.

  25. MaryAnn says:

    No. I am 58yrs old and I actually believe now for sure my twin sister is evil. When I am with people/family she nice to me but when not with anyone she is very mean and saids horrible things about myself and my daughter. She has set fire to a home, try to hurt my daughter but I stopped her, hit her husbands…. But then she real sweet to her friends at work and other family members never see these things she does. No matter where I move to state, she eventually follows and causes me sadness and now my daughter is having her first baby. I worried. Thanks, Mary Ann

  26. I try mostly to work together with people who fit that description. Similar aims, but different methodologies (and preferably also different skills) work very well professionally. Always looking for more, too.

  27. I think one of my best friends / college roommates qualifies. We understand the world similarly, but our core difference is that my view is more “optimistic/hopeful” and his is “pessimistic/realistic.”

    So, while we’ll both start with a hypothetical “This is bad,” I’ll say “but we can do something about it,” and he’ll say “and there’s nothing we can do – so let’s accept it.”

  28. i am my evil twin … but its always good to push the envelope even further, good article :-)

  29. Pravin Sharma says:

    It’s hard for me to point out exactly why, but you may be my evil twin.

    “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. ”

    This is indeed true, particularly in the case of de Botton, although not for the reasons he is YOUR evil twin. Maybe, I detected a smug, all knowing air in your writing which I despise. I have a real life friend who would probably match you very closely, despite the age difference and he is my evil twin.
    All three of us would probably be very similar in interests, orientation and outlook towards life. Where we would differ is the way we face people. Flamboyance/Superiority complex for him and False Modesty for me.

    • Hehe. I’d normally delete this comment for the personal attack, but I’ll let it stand in this case since it is illuminating.

  30. I met my evil twin early in life. We were on the engineering team in school, and we had compeeting designs for a machanism. Mine was simpler and more effective, so it won. I noticed that he had the same politefuly repressed cocky arrogance and air of superiority. When I have been defeated, I acted the same way.

    I think one of the reasons why one can hate somebody so similar to themselves is because you go after the same things. You have the same interests, so when you have conflicts, they end up being over one small particular prize. The people I am friends with are very different from myself, because we are never bitterly competing.