Life, imagined

I’ve written before about how, as part of my dual tracking cancer strategy, I’ve been recording a series of videos for my kids. I’ve also been writing something I’ve called ‘A long letter from Dad’. Like the videos, the writing is only meant for them, but I just finished a section that I would like to share to get some feedback on. And a warning, this is a little heavy.


I’m not sure if it’s because of my cancer diagnosis or just because I’m getting more perspective with age, but it’s dawned on me - in some ways gradually, in others suddenly - that the life we live is largely imagined. I’d love the three of you to learn this lesson far earlier in life than I have. 

Let me try and explain. 

Almost from the moment we are born our lives are circumscribed by convention. Baby girls get pink beanies, boys get blue. Your developmental milestones are measured against population averages - how heavy you are, how tall you are, how well you can read and write. At first this is all innocuous - it’s innocent, well meaning. But as you get older these ideas become more and more pervasive, and often less and less anodyne. 

I think the first time I became truly conscious of some of these constructs was when I finished school. I took school very seriously. I stressed a lot about my grades and about subject selection. I worked hard - in hindsight maybe too hard - to not just do well in class, but to be the best in class. I was head prefect and dux at my primary school and my high school. And then school was over. Suddenly there were no guardrails. Next year wouldn’t just be the start of a new school year - another year of curriculum, written by other people, that I would learn. No, school was done, next year I could do anything - literally anything - I wanted. Your grandparents had no expectations of me, they set out no path. It was totally up to me, and that was exciting but it was also frightening. Apart from dealing with that infinite range of possibility, it also dawned on me for the first time that school was a made up thing. If life after school was infinite in possibility, the constraints that school had put around me for the previous 12 years were, in hindsight, artificial, even though at the time they seemed so real, so important. I remember seeing people in tears because they didn’t get a certain grade in class, devastated because they didn’t win a scholarship or make it into the ‘A’ rugby team. At the time these things meant the world to those kids, these things were the world to those kids, and yet at a certain point - from one day to the next - they ceased to be relevant at all. 

School is likely the first major ‘institution’ you will encounter in your lives but it will absolutely not be the last. Humanity has created many institutions - schools, universities, companies, governments, religions, marriages and whole societies. All were imagined and then constructed by people. 

I think the first step in realising that the world is largely imagined is understanding that institutions, and all that they entail, are simply made up by other people. 

Just like school, people are hugely affected by their relationships with institutions. People can be devastated, even suicidal because a religion excommunicates them or because a company fires them or fails to recognise them. I worked in a few counselling roles when I was younger and I got to see first hand how seriously people take things. As a counsellor much of my task was to help people find perspective, to help them see the bigger picture - often to realize that the particular institution that had failed them, or that they had failed within, really wasn’t nearly as important as they thought. 

What was amazing to me was how hard it could be to make people see this in the moment of their particular plight. Often when you find yourself in these situations even the most intelligent of people cannot see the wood for the trees. Just like school in my example, people often can’t imagine that in time what seems like an all powerful, vital institution in their lives, could quickly cease to have any relevance to them.

If I start writing about religion as an institutional construct I might never stop. I believe religions are one of life’s most wonderful & important constructs for some people, toxic for others, and perhaps among the most dangerous constructs of all for global society given their potential to unnecessarily divide it. So, let's save religion for another day. 

After school (and perhaps university) the next major institution you are most likely to encounter is the corporation. The idea of ‘companies’ is a great idea - a construct to bring human and financial capital together to achieve greater things than could be achieved by one or more disorganized individuals. However, like all institutions, believing they are real is a fool's errand. Again, I was lucky enough to see this early in life. Before I’d turned 30 I was part of a few companies that were restructured, in some awful cases it was my job to support the restructuring effort. I saw people shattered by the experience. Some had worked at these companies for 20 or 30 years. The idea of the company had melded with their lives, with their own identities. When they were suddenly expelled from the company, not by their own choice, they were devastated.  Once again, in that moment, the impact that institution was having on the individual was overwhelming. People would say things like, “my life is over” and “I’ll never work again”. They couldn’t imagine that months, or even days later, this company would have little to no significance to them. 

Institutions are born from the ideas of people, and when you strip away an institution it is only the people that are left. Please don’t ever give your energy and your loyalty to any institution, give it instead to the people within, or to those parts of the foundational idea that you believe in. Day to day it means the same thing, but over time being conscious of this distinction can make a world of difference. Unwavering devotion to any institution can blind you to the truth, or simply to bigger opportunity. 

The next step in understanding the imagined world, is to realize that norms and expectations, like the institutions that often house them, are also manufactured. And these are pervasive. Boys should like sport, girls should like cooking. By the age of X you should have done Y. If you’re good at maths you should be an engineer, not an artist. Ladies marry men. Mothers stay at home. I don’t want you to ever feel confined by these  ideas. They are just made up by other people. Once again, focus on the core - what you know is right for you in essence. All those other constructs are not fixed - they are transient over time, and even at a single point in time you’ll be able to find groups of people who have wildly different interpretations. Just find the groups or the institutions that house norms and expectations that you feel most comfortable with. Don’t waste your time, energy or happiness trying to conform.  

And this is important too. If I’m not there, please don’t ever try and guess what I would have wanted you to do, to think or to believe. I’d like to think that I have a very open mind, and I change my mind all the time. I’d like you to do the same.

Understanding that expectation is imagined can actually be very powerful. I remember reading about the world hotdog eating championships, held on Coney Island in New York every year since the 70’s. For three decades the record for the most hotdogs was stuck at 25 hotdogs. Then in 2001 there was a new contestant, a Japanese guy named Takeru Kobayashi. He smashed the record, eating 50 hotdogs. The amazing thing is that every year after that the winners of the competition would generally eat at least 50 hotdogs. Suddenly people had witnessed a new benchmark for what was possible. The previous expectation wasn’t real, it was imagined, and when someone demonstrated that another level of achievement was possible decades of expectation changed overnight. Throughout your life other people (or worse still, your own inner voice) will try and tell you what is and isn’t possible. You’ll be told you’re too young to do something. You don’t have enough experience. You don’t have enough capital. You’re not educated enough. There will be problems that have persisted for ages, and they’ll be thought of as unsolvable. Of course some of these barriers might be real, but please always remember that in many cases they are often just imagined, and with a different way of thinking or a different kind of effort, sometimes the unachievable can be achieved.

When I was about 10 years old I wanted to stop a toxic waste dump from being built at Tembisa, very close to where we lived in South Africa. It’s a long story, but we ended up organising people from the Tembisa township to make a human chain to demonstrate the short distance between the proposed site and the township - I guess about 1km. That was 27 years ago but I will never forget the feeling of the ground vibrating as thousands of people marched and danced over the hill from the township, at our behest. I think I realized then that the right idea can mobilize people like nothing else, and to never assume that something was impossible just because the challenge seemed immense. Working at Google now I see this kind of thing happening often - groups of people coming together to try and solve problems that previously have been thought of as unsolvable. Please live your life approaching any kind of problem assuming at the outset that it can be solved.  

So, we’ve covered institutions, social norms and expectations. There is a third and final aspect of life that is imagined and in my experience this the hardest one to understand, and harder still to master. Most people only come to this realization much later in life, if at all. This is the realization that much of what we sense & feel, our own internal sense of reality, is also imagined.  This is all still quite new to me and while I haven’t mastered it in practice, I absolutely know it to be true. 

I’m going to do a terrible job of explaining this but let me try. 

Since my cancer diagnosis I’ve done a lot of reading about topics like fear (of loss, death etc) and pain (from treatment). We experience these less sensations less as conscious thoughts and more as something we sense or feel, and so it's easy to forget that they are in fact thoughts - at least we experience them based on how our brains respond to a piece of information or an event. We can control thoughts. 

I’ve recently had to deal with emotional extremes that I haven’t had to deal with before. Particularly in the middle of difficult cancer treatment there would be days that I would feel like death was imminent and that it would be catastrophic for me and for our family. Then just the next day I’d feel much happier because I’d been distracted something - kids, a movie or two, visits from friends. It dawned on me that the physical reality was unchanged, but my experience of it was entirely different from one day to the next, purely because of how I was thinking about it. 

Like I said, there is so much more to learn here for me. The art of calming one's mind through meditation is immensely powerful. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a situation, mediation can be like throwing reigns on a galloping horse - you can learn to quiet your mind, your fears, and even your pain. 

I’ve been reading a lot about psychedelics recently, and how it is being used now to control depression and even the fear of death in dying people. This is obviously playing with brain chemistry to alter thought and perception but I think it is another example of how our experience of a physical reality can be altered dramatically, simply by changing how we think about it. In this sense even some of our most base experiences of reality can be thought of as being imagined. 

I hope I’ve been able to convince you that institutions, norms and expectations and how we perceive the world, or even our own bodies, is largely a function of our own imagination. Maybe this will all seem obvious to you when you read this. I want to leave you with one final thought on this. I want you to understand how powerful this understanding is. 

When you realize that so many of the things in our world or in our own minds are imagined, you can begin to properly appreciate the power of imagination. 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with or alongside some amazing, smart people in my life - some of them the smartest in their fields anywhere in the world. But if you look at history, being smart only gets you to the start line. It’s imagination that makes the difference. If a person lacks imagination, they lack the ability to clearly see an alternate future. If they lack the ability to harness the imagination of others they won’t find the right level of support for their cause. If they fail to realize that the institutions, norms and expectations that pervade the world, or the feelings that pervade their minds, are imagined - if they see them as concrete realities - changing them will feel impossible. 

Power in life comes from understanding that most things are imagined, from an ability to harness and direct your own imagination, and from captivating the imaginations of others. 

Kids, life truly is imagined. 

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