Funky X-mas Gift Ideas : Fear & Entropy

Entropy as a spyglass

"Entropy" is one disturbing concept ! You'll find the following on The Free Dictionary :

  1. Symbol (S) for a closed thermodynamic system, a quantitative measure of the amount of thermal energy not available to do work.
  2. A measure of the disorder or randomness in a closed system.
  3. A measure of the loss of information in a transmitted message.
  4. The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.
  5. Inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.

When you read (2) and (3) you get the feeling it's an indicator of how messed up things are but when you read (4) "entropy" feels like a convergence towards order. Sean Caroll, in his Sydney University talk on TED, has an amazing take on Entropy however where he explains why an egg cannot un-break for example ! Wikipedia echoes:

Entropy is the only quantity in the physical sciences (apart from certain rare interactions in particle physics) that requires a particular direction for time, sometimes called an arrow of time. As one goes "forward" in time, the second law of thermodynamics says, the entropy of an isolated system will increase. Hence, from one perspective, entropy measurement is a way of distinguishing the past from the future. However in thermodynamic systems that are not closed, entropy can decrease with time: many systems, including living systems, reduce local entropy at the expense of an environmental increase, resulting in a net increase in entropy. Examples of such systems and phenomena include the formation of certain crystals, the workings of a refrigerator and living organisms.


Stemming from the above, and from an arrow of time perspective, Entropy in everyday life is the impossibility of turning back, the importance of letting go and the uselessness of regret. Looking onwards however, Entropy is a reminder of how crucial risk taking is:

  1. We are not closed thermodynamic systems you see :) We interact with other such systems and, though constantly trying to decrease our own local entropy, we are increasing the entropy around us. Think of a stable family in times of war or crisis where the father's doing his best to feed and educate his children.
  2. Despite our best efforts, Entropy's still around though. These are the occasional car accidents, the times where life says "no" to a career choice or a financial decision ... These are the unavoidable reminders of how hard it is to isolate oneself

In retrospect, and looking at the universality of Entropy, one is reminded of the unknown unknowns and the importance of living with uncertainty and potential conflict. This is reminiscent of an amazing quote by James Whedon:

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better

Peace is not the absence of inner conflict but the acceptance of the latter. Embracing Entropy is a surefire life strategy. This is the spyglass we all need. Don't stare at the horizon expecting an island and a worry-free life. What's beyond won't be that different from what you have today. What needs to change isn't the horizon, it's the person carrying the Spyglass.


But "acceptance" is just a word. Acceptance is the consequence of a cause. Acceptance is the culmination of a process. And to accept a conflict, one needs to meet it and face it.

Fear as a constellation

"Fear" ... is what you feel before speaking to that girl / guy you fancy, quitting your job, jumping into a long-term relationship, changing a routine to make more time to reach a dream ... If you delve to its core, it often indicates a resistance to change. And that's where we bounce back to Entropy. If Entropy is the unavoidable messiness of reality one learns to accept, then Fear is the twelve-course lesson to get there. Why twelve ? No idea :)

Consider Peter Sims' excerpt from "Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries":

One of the really interesting things from the research on creativity, including from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that the most creative artists tend to be really, really good at trying a lot of things before they solve a problem. These people weren’t just problem solvers, they were problem finders.

The above reads as "Face your fears" or even "Seek Entropy". A bit like a Pavlovian dog, one should teach oneself how to smile when Fear hits. It should be a gasp of joy. Finally ! A chance to let some Entropy into my life :) Courtesy of Steven Pressfield:

Are you paralysed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

And this leads to Paul Graham's amazing quote regarding why one should always "run upstairs" in the start-up world (as in life) as old (fat) companies will always prefer to run downstairs (i.e. choose the easy way):

This is a good plan for life in general. If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you're trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you're even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what's the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.


Lack of resistance is a guarantee of the status quo. Where there's fear, there's a sign that something's worse pursuing. Treat Fear as a sailor treats a constellation: A hint at the right direction.

Masters of Uncertainty

Back in the time where I met TED Active's amazing crew, there was a necklace more and more people were wearing day after day for some mysterious reason. When asked what it was, people would answer : "This is the necklace of the masters of uncertainty". It was made out of golden dice. Dice, as a symbol of uncertainty. Golden, as a symbol of how valued that uncertainty was and how important it was to embrace it.

When asked how they got a hold of it, they'd say they deserved it. When asked how, they said one was to do something but that this "something" was a secret. Eventually, I also got a necklace doing something I can't share.

 The Monk Days :)

The Monk Days :)

What I can share is that a master of uncertainty is one who understands the wildness of life, how unknowable the outcomes of his decisions are, how risky it is to take a leap of faith. But a master of uncertainty is one who always does.

I wish you a X-mas full of Fear and Uncertainty and a Soul to make the best of it :*