The Key to Act Two

How do you top life rules? With a life script, that’s how. Here’s an absolutely minimalist 2-step one. Guaranteed to work for 90% of humanity. Across all neurotypes, astrological signs, preferred pronouns, quadrants of the political compass, and Myers-Briggs types. Tested across multiple scenarios, utopian and dystopian, decentralized and centralized. Constructed to be compatible with blockchain futures, rated to survive Category 5 culture wars, and resilient to climate change. Here it is, in picture form first, ready?

And now in words:

First become a key, then go look for a lock. 

This script picks up where the first-stage parental booster gives up, at around age 21, marking the beginning of Act 1. The becoming-a-key Act 1 phase lasts 3-21 years. Then there is a bit of an intermission of about 2 years, which for most people is a very confusing, unscripted time, like an inter-airport transfer in a strange foreign city with sketchy-looking shuttle buses that you are reluctant to get on, and long queues at the bathroom.

And then you’re in Act 2, which begins at age 42 on average. In a previous post, I argued that immortality begins at 40. Act 2 is about unlocking the immortality levels of the game of life. The essential truth about Act 2, which you must recognize in order to navigate it well, is this: Unless you make a special effort, you are probably not going to get damaged enough in Act 1 to become a key.

So to work this script, you are going to have to undergo some trials. In double-quick time if you’re already pushing 40.

Karma Hammer

The key-and-lock script derives from an older one that used to be much more popular before the invention of the steam engine: first become a hammer, then go look for a nail.

That wasn’t a very good script. It only worked for Real Men (not all of whom were men, or for that matter, real), and not very well for them. They generally discovered, right after they’d yelled “nailed it!” that they themselves were nails for a bigger hammer poised to descend on them, usually at the poetically perfect moment right after they’d done their own nailing.

This was called karma. Every hammer is a nail for some bigger hammer. People mistake karma for a cyclic view of the universe when it is in fact a recursive view of it.

The rest, which included almost all the women, many of the #notallmen, and  all the mis-pronouned, were just lucky if they didn’t get nailed. Every hammer is a nail, but every nail is not a hammer. If you’re keeping track here, the hammer that fells the topmost Putin-class human hammers is called the Grand Void. It was voted the top Marvel supervillain in a recent poll.

But we mostly don’t live in hammer-and-nail societies anymore. We live in lock-and-key societies, soon to be blockchain-flavored.

I’m only about a year and a half into being a key, but looking around at what people older than me are doing, it is clear that they mostly don’t have a clue, or are actively regressing. So I’m making up my own Act 2, just like I did for my own Act 1.

The trick to Act 2  is to recognize that Act 1 was mostly about turning into a key. Even if you didn’t realize that at the time, and thought you were doing other things like Pursuing Happiness, Making Money, Finding the One, or Making a Difference. You were actually acquiring the set of cuts and notches required to be a key.

Which is required to become fully human.

Alienation and Humanization

People think of Act 1 as acquiring “experience” but that not quite it.

You see, most experience is useless.

At worst it just uses you up like a tank of gasoline. At best it wears you down like a cobblestone getting polished by a million footfalls. What it doesn’t do is turn you into a key. That’s why it is useless.

In return for getting used up or worn down, you get to bank unremarkably unique memories that make you feel increasingly different from everybody else, even as you actually become more indistinguishable from them, and your life converges with their lives, collapsing into a shared indistinguishability, a black hole of high-proximity deep disconnection. The hell of other people where you are unique, just like everybody else.

This is called alienation. Keydom is the exact opposite of that.

The only life experiences that count towards keydom are ones that make your personal story irreversibly fork away from all others, while (and this is the irony of keydom) teaching you something about how you’re actually like everybody else.

This is usually called self-actualization: discovering the most general of truths about the human conditions through the most individual of experiences. But I like to call it humanization, because the part that’s getting actualized is drawn from your common humanity, not your special freakshow talents.

So like alienation, humanization is defined by irony. Even as you develop an inner capacity for connecting with others, by becoming attuned to similarities rooted in shared humanity, you find yourself separated from others by the process of individually actualizing shared potentialities.

It’s like a butterfly recognizing its kinship with the caterpillar right when it’s crawling out of the pupa, and exclaiming, “hey, we are wonderful little transformer thingies! Anyone can do this” only to find the other caterpillars going, “what’s that fluttery fool talking about, he’s nothing like us.”

With humans though, most stay caterpillars, because they’re too attached to the things that make them unique caterpillars to want to turn into common butterflies.

Here’s a handy pair of definitions laying out the difference.

Alienation is estrangement from others caused by consequential external similarities masking inconsequential inner differences.

Humanization is estrangement from others caused by inconsequential external differences masking consequential inner similarities.

You’re alone in both conditions, but lonely only in the first.

Alienation is a bunch of kids all getting the same It haircut and hating each other more as a result.

Humanization is a supervillain whispering to a superhero, “we are the same, you and I,” and then getting into the death-struggle anyway.

Superheroes and supervillains are both successful examples of keydom. Key and antikey actually, but let’s talk about failed examples.

Failed Keydom

Keydom isn’t about experiences, it is about notches. And not score-keeping notches, only key-nature notches. If you accrue enough notches (the minimum is 8), you’ll be ready for keydom.

See, life is long, but there’s a catch: the back half of it is defined by constraints so strong, and so depressingly (and expensively) banal, unless you’ve already reshaped yourself into a key shape that fits into it, you’ll basically get jammed and stuck into the keyhole in the door to the rest of your life rather than properly inside it, living it out. So you’ll spend that half wondering what the hell happened.

I mean, look at Stephen Hawking. Health stuff closed in and reduced him to a twitching finger and darting eyes by 30 or so. Fortunately, he’d already ascended to keydom and unlocked his Act 2 levels by then, thanks more to his outlandish trials I suspect, rather than to his freakish genius.

And on the flip side, perfectly healthy people with a lot of wiggle room can fail to turn into keys, and when the constraints close in, they meekly yield, and submit to getting locked out of the rest of their own lives.

So whatever else it unlocks, the main thing unlocked by the key you turn into during Act 1 is your ability to actually inhabit your own life through Act 2.

If you don’t get to keydom, then this reality is locked away from you. You can look in wistfully at what you could have been through the keyhole, but you can’t get in there and make it so. Because you didn’t become the key to the life you can see.

Sitting there, staring at your could-have-been life is what makes life feel long, even if it is short.

If you think life is short, yours is in a minority 10% of key-script lives, and I’ll get to why you are a horrible, no-good person in a minute. But for us in the 90%, unless you recognize that Act 1 is a key-making act, and figure out what sort of key you’ve turned into, and what sort of locks you should go looking for, you’re destined to end up, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40, going, “Err… somebody call the superintendent, I can’t get into my apartment.”

Then you’ll stand around looking foolish for the next forty years, trying to get people to listen to your arguments why, actually, you are really great by the standards of Parallel Universe #37592a, and why everybody should fork there.

As a result of this, most people don’t think there’s much to Act 2 beyond hanging around trying to ruin Act 1 for younger people who think they’re too good for Parallel Universe #37592a. To their credit though, they mostly do it to their own kids, rather than doing it to other people’s kids.

But getting back to you, if you turn into a key, you can

a) unlock your own life so you can live it

b) unlock other TBD things, with the D’ing being the fun part

So don’t become a failed key. It’s not fun, kids will hate you, and everybody will hate your going on and on about Parallel Universe #37592a.

To turn into a key, you must, like I said, acquire at least 8 cuts or notches.

And since you’re not a piece of metal but a human being, those notches and cuts are of course scars in your psyche. Immutable transactions on your personal blockchain of neuroplastic, narcisstically woundable history. Memories of torturous and tortuous Act 1 chapters that, hopefully, have turned you into a candidate Interesting Person. Which is not an ego thing suitable for cashing out as Instagram celebrity in Act 1 (though you could do that), but a necessary condition for being an Interested Person in Act 2 (which is infinitely more worthwhile).

An Interested Person is somebody who

a) has turned into a key and is

b) interested in figuring out what that key unlocks.

Most keys are made, not born, but it is instructive to talk about Born Keys, aka Chosen Ones, amd Forged Keys, aka Shaped Ones, even though they are awful people.

Born to be Key

Some people are born keys. They are the chosen ones. They’re barely out of the cradle when Significant Unlocking Events start to happen to them, and before they know it, they’ve been swept up by history. They are the true 1%.

Sometimes, they aren’t even born before they turn into keys.

Take for example, the philosopher Ashtavakra, a superior brahmin of yore. Legend has it that he was so clever, he presumed to correct his father’s grammar from inside the womb. The father, a premium mediocre brahmin named Kahoda, who had acquired some cursing privileges through his own forgettable first act, delivered a curse unto his unborn son: he would be born with eight deformities.

Eight deformities, if you do the combinatorial math on narcissistic wounding, is enough to turn you into a pretty well-defined key. This set a record, at the time, for the fastest ever Act 1: minus 3 months. So Ashtavakra — “eight deformities” — was born right into his Act 2, with a very particular set of skills, sort of like a baby Liam Neeson, that would make him a nightmare for other brahmins.

Legend has it that around that time, the court philosopher of King Janaka, a karma-hammer type brahmin named Vandin, had thrown down a challenge to all other brahmins of the realm: best me in Vedic debate or drown yourself. Many, including Ashtavakra’s curse-happy father Kahoda, tried to take on Vandin, failed, and drowned themselves.

Of course you know how this story ends: our eight-ways-deformed teen prodigy Ashtavakra limped and crawled his way to Janaka’s court, defeated Vandin, and got himself installed as the court philosopher in his place.

Nobody knows if any of this is true, but a celebrated book known as the Ashtavakra Gita is attributed to this particular Chosen One.

It’s a pretty good Gita as Gitas go. It’s sort of the North Rim of Gitas. The Bhagavad Gita is for the sorts of normies who dutifully trek to the South Rim to gape at the Grand Void. All the cool kids with the It haircut prefer the Ashtavakra Gita.

But I digress. Let’s move on from Chosen Ones to Cold Forged Ones.

Cold-Forged Keys

Some people are not born keys, and never become keys, but know what kind of lock they need to pick because they are born near locked doors that access small rooms inside tall pillars that they’re told from childhood are worth breaking into. These small rooms are known to be good places to run out the Act 2 clock, while contemplating the unreasonable shortness of life.

So they jiggle and scrape and file and bump under parental supervision, until they pick the locks for those particular doors. Then they enter, kick out the incumbent occupant, and lock themselves in, until they themselves are kicked out by the next lock picker.

They are the 9%. Metonymously known as Pillars of Society. As you might guess, I’m setting up a 1:9:90 rule here for user-generated lives.

The pillars of society aren’t always super happy about their lives, and have a vague sense of having mangled themselves to fit into a procrustean bed inside a pillar, but mostly they are able to ignore it.

Back in the days of karma-hammer recursions, this used to be called being a square peg in a round hole. Now you know the origin of that phrase, since the people in the (round) pillar rooms are mostly squares.

The 9% are caught between hammer-nail societies and lock-key societies.

Call them cold forged societies: hammers turning key-blank humans into forged keys, in both senses of forged,  by shoving them into really hard locks known as dies. It’s really alienating to have that done to you, but it pays well. Note that their partial key nature does not lie in their having picked the lock of the pillar rooms, but in the the contortions they must take on to occupy them. There’s a bigger story there about how institutions gatekeep access through pickable locks, and preserve memories and perpetuate the actions of true keys, but let’s set that aside for now.

Between them, the 1% and 9% define society and culture, and most importantly history as a prison within which the future is trapped.

The remaining 90% are neither the chosen ones, nor the shaped ones. As keys that are (potentially) made by natural processes rather than being born keys or shaped by cold-forging, they are the Tortured Ones.

So to summarize, we have:

  • 1% Chosen Ones, born keys who shape the world into Extremistan using Very Particular Skills to alter history in pre-destined ways
  • 9% Shaped Ones, cold forged keys who populate Mediocristan by locking themselves into the Pillars of Society in a perpetuation parada
  • 90% Tortured Ones, who have an indeterminate shot at turning into real keys, but are most likely to simply be miserable

So if you do the math, that’s 10% who have some sort of predictable role to play in the human story, and 90% destined to simply be miserable unless they turn into keys through the natural tortures of life.

In case you hadn’t already put it together, the 10% who think life is short rather than long comprise the 1% and the 9%.

The 1%, even if they are born right into their Act 2s, trigger stories that are too long for one life. They think life is short because for them, it is.

The 9% who lock themselves up in a pillar of society, waiting to be booted by the next lockpicker, strive to maximize their occupancy of their pillar and preferably, save it for their own kids. They think life is short because they lack the imagination to be bored by finite responses to immortality.

The 90%? They are the ones who think life is long. Unless they figure out how to turn themselves into keys, which paradoxically makes them both immortal, and their lives short.

Let me tell you a Russian folktale that explains why the 2 kinds of life-is-too-short people are generally horrible, no-good people, and why true, natural-formed keys are the best kind of people, who deserve their earned immortality.

A Russian Folktale

I’ve already given you the cartoon image and aphoristic versions of the life script, and a 1-9-90 rule to describe the statistics of how the script plays out.

But they say people remember ideas best with stories, so here is a story version. Fiction is hard for me, but I have been colluding with Russians lately to improve my skills, so here is a little Russian folktale.

Janak Patel, the famous millionaire textile czar of Ahmedabad, had three sons. The eldest, a chosen one named Ashtavakra Patel, was groomed from early childhood as anointed heir to the empire. He grew into a pompous, fully capitalized (heh), Chosen One.

The second son, the dutiful Vandin Patel, acquired a law degree and an MBA and took his place as an equally pompous Shaped One by his brother’s side, as a pillar of society notorious through all of Gujarat for his patelgiri (a particularly effectual variant of karma-hammering).

The youngest son, Ivan Tsarevich Patel, was the black sheep of the family.

Ivan had no clear place in the scheme of things. Janak Patel despaired of him ever amounting to anything. He was berated by one and all around him for a uniquely Gujarati crime known as magajmari: futile, impractical, snowflakey overthinking and underacting, the very antithesis of productive and pragmatic patelgiri.

After the death of Janak Patel in 1992, the older brothers schemed and conspired to cheat Ivan Tsarevich out of his share of the inheritance and cast him out of the textile business. So Ivan then went off by himself into the wider world, acquired many quirky friends, and had seven Interesting Magajmari Adventures involving Baba Yaga the witch, Vasilisa the Wise, and various other sketchy Russians.

The tortures he experienced on those adventures turned him into a key, and he returned to outwit his evil older brothers (his eighth and final adventure) and take his place at the helm of the textile empire, which he pivoted into a blockchain startup. It remains to be seen where he will go from there, but people expect interesting times. Some expect him to run for Prime Minister, and Putin is said to look favorably upon his prospects.

Ashtavakra — the legendary philosopher, not the entitled textile heir — was kinda lucky. He was born with his eight deformities. The rest of us have to be tortured by life for decades to acquire our notches and cuts.

There’s clearly an Ooga Booga joke to be made here, and since there is never a high road with me, I will take the low road and make it.

Two guys got shipwrecked on an island and were captured by an insane tribe of key makers.

The chief demanded, “You must choose! Ooga Booga or Whole Key?”

“Ooga Booga” said the first guy, suspecting correctly that Whole Key sounded bad. He was immediately subjected to tortures that left him with 3 deformities.

The second guy thought, ah shit, this  is no good, this is horrible. Whatever the hell “Whole Key” means, it can’t be worse than that.

So he said, “Whole Key!”

“Ooga Booga till Whole Key!” declared the chief. And they tortured him till he acquired 8 deformities. He went on to write a famous philosophy book called the Ooga Booga Gita, which I’m told is one of Putin’s favorite books.

I don’t remember the details of what happened to the other guy. I think he got some sort of job as an interchangeable part in a textile factory in Ahmedabad, and was eventually replaced by a robot and forgotten in the shufflings of history.

Nature, Nurture, Torture

The thing about becoming a key, unless you have a father who can curse you into one at birth, is that you can’t skip the tortures. Nor can industrial processes like cold-forging inflict the necessary kinds of pain. Not all tortures are equally horrendous of course. The truly horrendous ones don’t just carve a unique pattern of notches into you, they destroy you.

But what doesn’t destroy you only makes you uniquer.

Like that kid in Slumdog Millionaire who, through a series of horrifying ooga boogas, acquires exactly the set of answers required to unlock the million-dollar game show prize before he was out of his teens. Like I said, most people take till 40 or so, but some people get lucky, and become keys in nondeterministic polynomial time, which for a human life is anything less than 19 years.

This by the way, suggests, but does not prove, that becoming a key is a human-complete problem.

Here’s a mnemonic to remember this. You’ve heard of nature and nurture, right? Nature and nurture get you to the end of Act I and to the bathroom line in the lobby, but if that’s all you have, you aren’t a key.

Becoming a key is all about nature, nurture, and torture.

Nature is genes. It creates a space of life-script possibilities.

Nurture is some genes liking where they find themselves and choosing to express themselves through epic protein poetry, and other genes going, “fuck this shit, I’m not talking” and retreating into sullen, inexpressive silence. This is a narrowing of life script possibilities from 100% to say 7.8%.

It’s still a large class of behaviors rather than a specific path, because nurture only conditions you to produce behavior patterns, it doesn’t pick out a specific circumstantial path. Nature and nurture together only produce characters waiting for stories to happen to them.

If you understand that much, then my key-lock script can be understood as nature-nurture-torture. The last bit is what turns a character arc into a full-blown plot.

Torture is life experiences breaking you irreversibly in 8 ways, narrowing possibilities further, turning you into a unique key with exactly one life to live. Not a clod, which is what cold forging produces by erasing identity sufficiently to serve interchangeable-parts purposes, but a hardened stand-alone snowflake who doesn’t need a clod to protect them from the world.

Torture narrows life down to one possibility. Becoming a key means you have a shot at actually getting to that one possibility and making it your mission. A life lived with full intentionality, complete insufferability (which you earn through your tortures), and with no angsty what-ifs distracting you.

Harry Potter, for instance, was a 1/8 Chosen One because of that lightning-shaped scar he acquired at birth. The other key notches he had to earn through the first 6 books. Voldemort on the other hand, deliberately forged himself into the antikey with all that horcrux stuff.  All that stuff was neither nature, nor nurture. It was key-forming torture.

See, the reason all this scarring and horcruxing is necessary is that nature and nurture are not enough. They leave life in what mathematicians call an under-determined state. And since most people instinctively address under-determination by creating symmetric variable bindings for the unused variables (it’s what you perceive as “beauty”), they foreclose on the option of becoming a key.

Yeah, becoming a key is an ugly business.

Why Southwest Airlines Wins

This is important, so let me be serious for a bit and explain with a serious, real-world Southwest Airlines case study, often used in MBA classrooms to teach sophisticated patelgiri, and full of best practices you can take away as actionable insights from what is otherwise a blog post hopelessly mired in the worst kind of magajmari.

Suppose every person is a 16-digit number, like a credit card, and suppose 5 of those digits are set by genes. You’re born as 11453???????????? perhaps. Nurture adds 3 more digits using fairly routine, predictable environmental conditioning. So you turn into 11453826???????? say.

Now most people, in seeking out life experiences to fill in the remaining 8 question marks, look for pleasing, symmetric patterns. So you have a lot of people walking around with numbers like 1145382601011010. Then they try to hide the 11453826 part and present only as (11453826)01011010.

This is tribal signaling with low-information bits, or what is known as performing identity. It’s a beautiful thing.

This isn’t turning into a unique key, it’s more like turning into a zip code with some pleasingly symmetric mimetic filler attached. The latest Russian hacking software can hack these in minutes, present you with a fake “lock” and turn you into a tribalist tool in five minutes flat. And clone your uniquely interchangeable outraged twitter stylings into a hundred bots in the next 10 minutes. It is quite outrageous. You should start a hashtag to protest it and get all the other cool kids with the It haircut to join in.

This happens because you took the part of you that was supposed to be a secure private key and set it to ‘password’.

So the key to becoming a key is to seek out the right tortures that can bind the undetermined variables in interesting, unique, hard-to-hack ways that have a shot at unlocking an interesting door instead of turning you a hackable signaling puppet.

And that’s the real reason Southwest Airlines came to dominate the airline industry.

Rewilding Identity

Keys make you special, but they are made from not-special things: blanks.

There is a part of you that is standard-issue human, and that’s the part that matters to your eventual keydomIt is that standard-issue humanness, a key-blank nature ready to take notch-torture, that will make you uniquely you.

It’s not the non-blank-slate part of you that matters, it’s the key-blank part. And there’s only enough room for a key, because the rest of you is not a blank slate.

Normally you don’t do much with this deeply common part of yourself because you hate it. You are proud of the special way your eyes twinkle when you talk, making everybody fall in love with you. You’re not proud of the fact that you have 2 legs like almost everybody else. It’s not a source of your being identity, but it might be raw material for your becoming identity.

To become a key is to figure out the unexpected potentialities of the things that make you not special; things that make you an interchangeable human. Things that make you like everybody else. When you do that, you advance the Art of Being Human for all.

By contrast, if you’re seven-feet tall, you advance the art of basketball for a few.

To undergo eight tortures and become a key is to make yourself unfit for service as an interchangeable part on some industrial default script. This means you must fail enough, quickly enough, and in unique enough ways that you escape the gravity well of the black hole of aggregated, alienated humanity (alienity?).

The point is not to be uncommon, but to be common in an uncommon way. Any old ooga-booga will not do to generate that condition. The right kind of ooga booga is as hard to generate as a good, strong pseudorandom number.

Becoming a key is about rewilding your identity as a human, breaking it out of its domesticated uniformity, putting the variation back into the natural selection, doing your bit to reclaim our species nature from this benighted degeneracy — the mathematical term for a system expressing less than its full potential complexity — that is our premium-mediocre civilization.

Most people fail to further the rewilding of humanity because they err on the side of failing too generically. Because there is not enough entropy in the trials they undergo, not enough new learning in the information they uncover. They end up as dud keys that will open up no interesting variation in the human condition, reinforcing its fragile monoculture (or perhaps oligoculture would be a better word). The human condition as evolution in a parking lot.

We’re talking memetic selection here by the way. Not that lactose tolerance crap. We’re way past that stuff; that was all Act 1 at humanity scale. Humanity collectively is now in Act 2. That’s a whole other story too.

Degenerate humans typically don’t even have the energy left over to individually imagine a unique Parallel Universe #37592a . So they exist in some pool or other of frustrated, beautiful, virtue signaling, hashtagitating black hole of alienated sameness, pining for their particular shared utopian Parallel Universe 01011010.

A minority end up as non-dud keys. There is a formula for ending up in this state, which I covered at length in the essays collected into Crash Early, Crash Often. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up insufficiently entropic to be a key. A traditional, waterfall mid-life crisis (unlike the agile, continuously deployed crisis model I recommend) is, in many ways, a burst of catch-up failures to get to sufficient uniqueness to take on Act 2. This is a poor strategy, but it’s better than nothing.

Whether you arrive at keydom with an agile or waterfall Act 1, the question is, what exactly is a key in human condition terms? How do you know when you’ve become one? What do you do once you’ve become one? How do you protect it? Why should you protect it?

All will now be revealed.

A key is a forgetting and a freeing. 

A key helps you forget history in a special way without actually erasing memories, and free the future in an equally special way.

Let’s translate the key metaphor to the more common playing cards metaphor for life.

For the 1%, life is like being handed an all-trumps hand in a rigged game. Playing correctly and winning are the same thing. You know who you are, and what you have to do, and the expected outcome. You just have to watch out for silly mistakes like getting run over by a drunk driver, or being talked out of feeling like you’re special.

For the 9% nature and nurture are about being dealt a particular hand of unclear value. Winning and playing correctly are not the same thing. You look at your cards, and play the best game you can. Work the strengths, work around the weaknesses, play the perfectly Bayesian-rational game, beat the house if you can, but accept it with grace if you don’t. Come to terms with your history, fit into it.

What the 1% and 9% share is that they know what game they’re in, what the stakes are, and what it means to win. That’s another aspect of why they think life is short. There’s always a next thing to do, there’s never truly enough indeterminacy to cause anomie, boredom, or a sense of slow-moving, empty time devoted to imagining inaccessible what-if action.

The 9o% though, haven’t been dealt any sort of hand in any sort of recognizable game. Instead, they’ve been simply handed a poorly shuffled deck of cards.

Now a poorly shuffled deck of cards encodes history in a way that makes you predictable no matter what you do, but otherwise doesn’t specify what game you must play, or whom you must play it with.

Your challenge is not to win, but to decide to begin playing, and then continue playing. And crucially, to prepare the deck.

To become a key, to become unique, you must first erase history without destroying it. This means you really shuffle the deck. Turns out, mathematically, you need about 7 shuffles before a deck of cards truly forgets its past, and acquires the freedom to be random. That is why you need your eight tortures. This is what magajmari is for.

To be a key is to be free as only a properly shuffled deck can be free. In human terms, this is not about forgetting history, or erasing memories. It is about erasing the hold history has on the future. It is engineering a break from the past. And in the space created by that break, planting the seed of something new that can potentially permanently expand the possibilities of the human condition.

And in that novelty, there is a potential for immortality, a beginning without an ending. Which is why immortality begins at 40. To be a key is to potentially become immortal, because what you have unlocked cannot be locked up again once you’re dead, because, heh, you’re the only key remember?

That brings us to our final point: the paradoxical presence of impenetrable privacy at the heart of the fullest, most public expressions of shared humanity.

When you become a key, at one level, you become a private key. This is secure not because you are careful not to share it, but because you can’t share it, you can only live it. That private-key nature is the mere fact of your being alive in a state of a certain kind of incommunicable freedom, in particular historical circumstances. It is what lets you enter your own life and inhabit it, the Act 2 as lived experience.

But it is a also a public key. This is the part that’s visible to all, as the signature of your style of being human, in the shape of the infinite-game spaces you open up. The part that egoist Act 1 caterpillars confusedly interpret as a mark of uniqueness, special gifts, or Chosen One status.

It is none of those things. It is merely the mark of newly unlocked freedoms for all humans.

And that’s why you must turn yourself into a key, then go look for a lock.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. I enjoyed this post very much, but I kept thinking of this thing the whole time:

    • I think I’d seen this a long time ago, but had forgotten, thanks for surfacing it again and linking. Quite possible that’s what sparked the idea for this post.

  2. Damn Venkat, this was worth writing.

    Under, “Why Southwest Airlines Wins,” I kept thinking of Egregores, or collective group minds with symbiotic relationships with their groups. Lately I prefer Eliphas Levi’s terms for them: “Watchers.” They are the fathers of the nephilim, “terrible beings” that “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.”

    All the beautiful 0110110’s out there are huddling under a Watcher they’ve chosen/has chosen them/doesn’t fucking matter. Basically, the great thing about that is you get to “Be Right” and hashtag it, tweet it, etc… I think “Being Right” is supposed to get you into heaven, according to most religions.

    But according to most FOUNDERS of religions (Jesus, the Buddha, probably Siva because he’s kind of nuts), something else gets you into heaven. The kind of something else where something is unlocked for EVERYONE. I feel your description of the process is exceedingly clear.

    We humans have the possibility of creating, like we’re basically nothing, anything, as you said: Blank keys. Instead of huddling under Watcher 001101100, we can create our own office…. be the watchers of the watchers if you want. And the office stays there forever afterwards.

    Maybe you don’t have to reincarnate after going through that cycle (which, as you said, life is too short to complete in one go). We eventually stand at the end of time, as complete and as much a God as Siva. But I think in order to do so, we end up going down roads others would consider madness — as, frankly, you’ve described in all this.

    Also: The Kafka story, “Before the Law.” He writes part of what you wrote here.

  3. Ralph W Witherell says

    Hi Venkatesh,

    When I read your posts I understand my life better. Loved this post. Especially these lines:

    People think of Act 1 as acquiring “experience” but that not quite it.

    You see, most experience is useless.

  4. Wow. This after the culture wars map (which was refreshingly serious for the important stuff discussed).

    Your usual snarky humor woven into original takes on the subject works very well. Your jokey jokes… not so much.

    Patelgiri and Magajmari and butterfly, private key, card deck shuffle… plenty of useful frameworks to break smart. I wish this was written 10 years ago and I had read it.

    Ooga booga suspiciously sounds like yoga bhoga.

    No, the people who Ashtavakra Gita is for are not cool, nor kids, none with an It haircut.

    I discovered it through an intriguing introduction of its key passages in Bitten by the Black Snake: The Ancient Wisdom of Ashtavakra by Manuel Schoch. Then ploughed through a more complete and detailed commentary by Swami Vivekananda. If one can avoid getting distracted or put off by his flowery language and didactic style, it has a helpful format of original Sanskrit, transliteration, word by word meaning, purport of the verse and then an explanation in the context of the overall advaita non-dualism. Kindle version available. Even more than The Gita (Bhagavad Gita), which summarized key points from many upanishads, explanations are essential to grasp the paradox-filled Ashtavakra Gita. A scholarly translation (not as detailed but with more references to other upanishads, other Gitas) is Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Astavakragita: The Song of the Self Supreme.

    That was a long reading reco on what was a longish digression in the original post!

    • I have Ramesh Balsekar’s translation, it was good enough for me, and it was kinda interesting that he came to it as an amateur. I had a cool It haircut when I first read it :)

      I intend to litter all future posts with increasing numbers of jokey jokes so you’ve been warned 😆

  5. Víctor Marin says

    Where are you building your temple?

  6. Cait O'Donovan says

    Thank you. That was an incredible essay, the perfect inspiring-reframing-hilarious read to start the long weekend.

  7. Dave Foster says

    In thinking about the lower 3/4 quarters (or whatever major fraction) of the 90%, I kept thinking about the key line in X’s ‘The Have Nots’ – “this is the game/ that moves as you play.”

  8. Historically for Alchemists, the Philosopher’s stone was a symbol of achieving perfection, a theme that is carried throughout the Harry Potter series as Harry goes through a “Refiner’s Fire” or “Crucible”, and becomes the man he is at the end of the series.

    In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, seven obstacles guard the Stone. The first book thus recursively contains the plots of all seven. The seven obstacles guarding the Stone appear recursive as well, and to perhaps contain a message about achieving immortality. The third and the seventh seem particularly relevant:

    0. Open the bozobit-locked chamber on the right hand side of the third floor corridor. Solution: hearing it’s Forbidden should be enough, but Harry had to stumble in on accident.
    1. Hagrid’s three-headed dog. Solution: Play him a bit of music and he’ll go right to sleep.
    2. Sprout’s devil’s snare. Solution: Light a fire to drive away the dark and damp.
    *3. Flitwick’s flying keys. Solution: Learn to fly well enough to catch the right key, then come back down and open the lock.
    4. McGonagall’s human chess game. Solution: Be willing to sacrifice any piece necessary to checkmate the king.
    5. Quirrel’s mountain troll. Solution: Quirrel took care of that one already.
    6. Snape’s logic puzzle. Solution: The row of bottles contained the following potions;
    1) Poison
    2) Nettle wine
    *3) Potion to move the drinker forward through black flames
    4) Poison
    5) Weedosoros (poison)
    6) Nettle wine
    +7) Potion to move the drinker backwards through purple flames
    +7. Dumbledore’s mirror of ERISED|DESIRE. Solution: As Dumbledore told Harry afterward, “Only one who wanted to *find* the Stone — find it, but not use it — would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life.”

    To move forward into an infinite game, we must seek the keys to immortality. But Dumbledore puts a lot of work into convincing Harry that immortality is a bad idea, for some reason.

    Maybe it’s Phoenix related. Why live forever when you can burst into flames and be reborn from your own ashes, eh? Should only take two or three days, tops.

    • What Dumbledore actually said was, “And finally I must tell you that this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.”

      The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave only eight hundred.

  9. Would I be correct in thinking of the 9% as be somebody golden boy careerists?
    As a lost 30 something who traded in his 20s to become interesting and not much else, this post made me feel a lot better.

    • Hey, wait—- I traded MYYYYY 20s to become interesting and not much else. you suck! ;)

    • yeah – thats how i read it too. tlp’s take on DiCaprio’s character in Django Unchained came to mind.

  10. If you don’t get to keydom, them this reality is locked away from you.

    Im guessing it should be “then”

  11. So glad you expanded on the key/ lock theory. I’ve shared it with with a few friends since you first introduced the idea and everyone gets it. I love thinking of my early life as agile Act 1 hacking. So much healthier than the traditional “when is he gonna settle on a career?” thinking

  12. Maybe I missed this, but is it possible to induce tragedy? Or would it be as simple as ‘be more risky about everything’?

  13. Good read thank you. One source of confusion for me is I don’t kow many adults who think life is long. Perhaps i’m misunderstanding the article, but was just checking it against the world around me.

  14. The key theory of nature-nurture-torture sounds like another way of telling the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. He is a made object (nature) that is loved by a boy (nurture) and then thrown out to be burned (torture) which leads a magical fairy to turn him into a real rabbit (key). The end.

    A similar story is told with Pinocchio or the movie AI, both involving a blue fairy that makes them into real boys. PKD’s A Scanner Darkly also follows this narrative pattern, but instead involves a blue flower which symbolizes what has been sought. It’s quite a process to become real, if you survive the torture.

  15. I felt like I was reading an existential version of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Great imagery. I’m afraid you’ll lose the 90% with your eloquent writing, though. I work in technical marketing and most people lose focus in seconds…but I’m sure your intended audience consists of those hoping to one day be keys anyway. We are a masochistic bunch.

    Anyways – I definitely will be reading more of your work…

    • MichItaly says

      Rao is an admirer of that Guide to the Galaxy in facts — it’s in his 5 top recommended books.

      I’m afraid you’ll lose the 90% with your eloquent writing, though. I work in technical marketing and most people lose focus in seconds…

      Do they even have an “identity”?
      Identity is related with “identical”, character means first of all continuity.
      The first thing a truthful marketing course teaches to marketing workers, I presume, is that “identity” is an unrightly widespread concept/illusion.

      • MichItaly says

        (Do they, and does anybody?)

        • MichItaly says

          By the way, post author — this is a return to your apolitical writing I welcome gladly!

          There can be no truth nor fairness in discussion soon as politics, and anything “topical”, are the subject.
          I developed a bond to this blog for its writings of philosophy, not topical subjects related with the general comedy, and/or struggle… there can be no place for the pursuit of truth there.

          • Heh I haven’t given up topical commentary yet. In the past I stayed away out of snobbery mostly, but with a decade of practice, I recognize what I was rationalizing away before: topical/current affairs writing is simply harder to to do if you want to keep to the same standard.

            Just because a lot of people do it badly, or tribally, or noisily, doesn’t mean it’s not possible to ‘pursue truth’ through current affairs. It’s just harder.

  16. Nithyananda! I learned what that means; a greeting, before reading your work here. In fact, this has been quite a synchronistic ponderance. While consumming your essay to be further digested into my understandings, correlations in your work and from what I had been seeking prior, has sparked a recognition that’s eased my relational hungers; Thank You. I wrote an article in mid-February, and I feel that maybe in further synchronistic patterns, our similar ambition has particularized into my discovering this article, as you have lifted my “spirits,” which I’ve admittedly, been needing emotionally, in the midst of self-doubt. To perhaps beautify the everchanging lock of key construction, or instinctualizing my feeling to speak up through a motherly/human-cherishing concern, I ask you to imagine if you were Stephen Hawking, or in similar condition, and read your post, or above 40 years old…. the way you framed some of your words presented to me as a bit cold or pompous, and not encouraging of supportive environmental conditions. I am 23 years old, and aspire to be a mother some day, believing that if one is to involve their humanity through commonique pathway(s), to further set unneccesary divisions with language, may better particularize if left to the mathemetician’s logic, rather than an egoic rationalization. I perspectively don’t see it to be neccesary, the whole 40 years old frame, or the Stephen Hawking frame, in relation to stating your brilliant point, you obviously know what your talking about, you don’t need the extra poking. I understand you mean to connect the other article you have written about the capitalistic-societal-marketing case for the 40+ age group, however it is a statistical point that may not efficiently recognize the human-potentiality harmonies, beyond single stereo-type measurement, of those who recognize their age in that number. In understanding the cruelty of the failed design of a caste-system we are realizing to transform, your points are of course valid, but shedding light on the kind recognition of placemment-value further beyond the latter, may nurture your readership more, as we learn what does not serve the hungers of humanity, we must also learn what does, just as your key-solution has fulfilled me. Your summarizations of what I’ve been trying so hard to understand more completely, has been truly a blessing for me read and I do look forward to reading more. Just as I sense I may be just a bit younger than you, I honor that I have learned from you, and I hope to apply and share your knowledge, and even meet you some day if it is of benefit with shared values. Here is a link to the article I wrote in mid-February:

      “THE KEY”:
      In a few words…
      (Wish I had the article vocabulary intellect)

      My parents w/constant struggle, born in the Ukraine, were positively influential.
      Self-discipline, work ethic were our daily rituals. That was our “key”to uphold true family standards…Be a good example to all and NEVER, EVER SHAME THE FAMILY NAME BEFORE YOU!


  17. e.m. cameron says

    I am richer for stumbling across this. Thank you. Laughed at all the clever bits, but this paragraph stopped me cold:
    “To be a key is to be free as only a properly shuffled deck can be free. In human terms, this is not about forgetting history, or erasing memories. It is about erasing the hold history has on the future. It is engineering a break from the past. And in the space created by that break, planting the seed of something new that can potentially permanently expand the possibilities of the human condition.”
    Very moving. Had to take a little break. Well stated sir.

    My initial reaction when treasure such as this is discovered is to find others to share this with. Funny how something like this divides your people into 2 groups: ‘Yes, share’ and ‘hmmm…. maybe don’t bother. They’ll either not appreciate it or think you’re (I’m) a pompous ass.’ I _have_ been struggling lately with these 2 groups of people in my life. Loving both groups equally, and trying to accept them for who they are is a constant struggle (as Mister Rogers stated).
    Which brings me to the only issue I have with this outlook; the tendency towards snobbery of those who ‘get it ‘ towards those who do not. Yes, let’s enjoy/celebrate these moments when a great thinker/writer calls it out. However, we all need to work on accepting and respecting those journeys around us, for they also have their role to play.

    I look forward to your next writings.

  18. Great article! This article makes me want to quite my job in search of something far riskier and more painful.

    Do you think that society’s prescribed life scripts (college, military, bureaucrat, etc) are attempts to cold forge us, the tortured ones, into keys? We spend our lives trying to become the keys to unlock the rooms labeled CEO or Tenured Professor. Only the shaped ones are crazy enough, or perhaps sociopathic enough, to file themselves into the right shape.

  19. This sounds made up.

  20. Amazing article, thank you for writing this.

    One question, when you are less than a key, and are looking through a keyhole to a life of potential that you could have realized but did not, does that room hold your unrealized life or the life of another you’re projecting onto?

    Also I think I think its worth adding that if you are over 40, think you’re a key, and you’re life is remotely stable and you are not a social pariah, you’re almost certainly not.

    • franken-stereotype of both your unrealized + whatever projections the media has taught you about the lives of others. so facebook and rum basically.

  21. Senthil Gandhi says

    Beautiful stuff. Written. I had to put my phone away, and curl up into a ball from time to time to read this. The fetal position was especially helpful, also of use is getting rid of any excess water particles through your eyes preferably, and through the nose and mouth less preferably – but hey, what ever works.

    I am not sure if you realized the aptness of roping in the butterflies while talking about forgetting history without destroying it. Metamorphosis is such a catastrophic event for an insect, mostly the insect body becomes a protein soup and forms brand new structures again, people always wondered thought nothing survives this catastrophe except species level memory encoded in the DNA, but apparently, life experience (associative memory) does.

    • Heh no, I did not know those details about metamorphosis. That is fascinating. It would interesting to imagine a human-level intelligence evolving to have butterfly type life stages.

  22. This is some of the most meaningless gibberish I have ever read. You had a vague unproven theory about how human beings interact, that you never actually defined. Then you proceeded to throw unrelated mathematical and computer science principals at the reader without ever explaining how exactly they were relevant to the point you were trying to make.
    Overall it just seemed like tech flavored pseudo philosophy.

  23. MichItaly says

    What, I believe, is quite note-worthy it the absolute vainness of such posts for 95% (and no fewer) of the readership. 95% aren’t ready, 3% have gone through the bridge (perhaps discovering that there is no bridge, as R. Laing argues in his Knots?).

    Progress may be permanently arrested on any of these levels, with complete unconsciousness of what might have followed at the next stage of development. As a rule graduation to the next stage is barred by violent prejudices and superstitious fears. This, however, serves a most useful purpose, since a man who is compelled by accident to live at a level too high for him becomes a fool and a menace.

    Nature is not only aristocratic, she is also esoteric. Yet no man of understanding will thereby be induced to make a secret of what he knows, for he realizes only too well that the secret of psychic development can never be betrayed, simply because that development is a question of individual capacity.

    These existential posts by Rao are what best one can find on the Internet — and yet disappointingly every word, by every one, is in vain.

    Such discourse only grants a measure of comfort to the 2% that is in front of the bridge. Or has walked their first steps on it. It only means “You are not alone. I was there too. And yes, at the other end there is an exit, and the world doesn’t end past it.”
    It’s so little, and yet also it’s everything one needs.
    It’s a signpost giving reassurance one has not lost the track — contrary to all other evidence.. (and feedback from others).

    Note on the “You develop more inasmuch you start to uncover what’s the common undiscovered mental background of humanity (= Jung’s collective unconscious): there is an individual, non-shared unconscious to be discovered too, and I am not so sure it always represents a tiny fraction of the to-be-discovered.
    However, yes, the larger part is collective — although it’s impossible for the collective to discover it. Too many sociopaths = disruption of the collective.

    • MichItaly says

      I meant 98% of the readership. We can find only confirmations to what was already independently discovered inwardly in what we read.
      Still, the reads never fail to be a delight for me.

  24. “And since most people instinctively address under-determination by creating symmetric variable bindings for the unused variables (it’s what you perceive as “beauty”), they foreclose on the option of becoming a key.”

    I would say “esthetics”.

  25. This is such astonishingly high-level perception refactoring.

    I want to see the photographic evidence of you with an It haircut btw.