This post's read time: 10 minutes
I am known as Brad Sealfon. This is the story of my journey to find and maintain my stoke, after I largely lost my enthusiasm for the life I was living. I am a self-described seeker.
This is my quest to warm hearts, spark creativity, & fuel the soul.
I have found that service to others is the greatest meaning I can find in life.
I also have a passion for discovery and adventure.
I am searching to find my niche, where I can be the fullest, most meaningful form of myself – and in the process hopefully help many others do the same.
Until recently, my strongest identity was as marketing manager and board member for a successful medical technology company. Stay tuned for a later post on that life.
This site helps document a narrative breadcrumb trail for how I think and what actions I take (and the repercussions).
Full disclosure, it also romanticizes some fringe decisions and actions, to encourage others to take meaningful risks in their lives, too. At least that’s how my ego has rationalized the glamorization of being lost and wandering.
I’m doing this because I think my stoke can stoke many others. I believe I can help fuel a movement of people empowering themselves, and influencing their communities for positive change. I think the best way to take righteous action is to gain experience.
As Mark Twain puts it:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
That said, I have grappled since I was 15 years old with my place in life – with how to measure the value of my life and the impact of my actions. I was influenced by the video we watched in second grade art class, where the Ancient Egyptian golden wolf god Anubis weighs your heart against a feather to dictate the eternal fate of your soul.
I was terrified by the realization that nobody seemed to really know what was going on or how to value one’s place in life. They didn’t understand the systems they were taking part in, or how their actions were being influenced by marketing and media and culture.
And school was the worst. Instead of trying to help us question and understand institutions and systems it seemed our educational system was battling for its own relevance and survival above all other things, systematically beating the curiosity out of students. The holistic health and success of its students often got lost in the struggle.
It was like discovering that we’re all being brainwashed by some evil villain, and I began to hunt for a culprit. I wanted to be very intentional about who I am. So I began hunting in more earnest. I sought wisdom.
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
– Rene Descartes
(from Player Piano)
It was very, very lonely trying to figure things out. It still is. I am inspired by some people who make efforts and dedicate their life’s work to reducing suffering through giving people tools to help themselves. I want to do that, too. So I’m on a mission to find my stoke, and find my tribe. It might be months, it might be years. I’m going to do the best I can. I can’t do any better than that.
This will also be a proving ground for my values. This will be the place I try to measure the value of what I put into the universe and whether that’s more valuable than what I take out of it.
StokeQuest is the place I document my belief system so I can’t hide from it when it needs to change.
There were two really big reasons I didn’t travel more when I was younger:
#1 – I was raised to enormously value my own individual existence and to never do anything to jeopardize that. It’s the whole Fight Club thing.
Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. – Fight Club
#2 – I realized that modern transport, especially air travel, is incredibly environmentally destructive. I am taking liberties with luxurious energy that isn’t mine, borrowing time against future generations who will have to deal with my carbon footprint. Knowing this, I wanted to be ultra-confident that whatever the heck I do is worth it.
“Let’s make clear what this means. Flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire on, non-stop, 24 hours a day, all year.”
So fifteen-year-old me ended up scared and paralyzed by choices, which persisted for several years, resulted in a lot of letting other people guide my decisions without committing my heart and soul to them, and which still weighs upon me today. I have a long history of learning how to fail, and more importantly – how to opt out of things which don’t agree with me, either rationally or emotionally. I have learned patience through impatience and an unwillingness to accept things as they are.
“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”
-George Bernard Shaw
In the meantime there’s been a lot of development of discipline and trying to force myself to do hosts of things which make abstract sense but which I don’t really like the feel of. Lots of psychological gymnastics which leave me exhausted, tied up in knots.
When I was sixteen, I paced around my college dorm trying to extrapolate the meaning of life when I was struck with a eureka moment. Life’s meaning was a tautology – it’s self-fulfilling.
The realization was this:
Life which pursued life would continue to live. Life which pursued death would not. The meaning of life was simply to keep living.
This was not heartwarming, to say the least, after years of being told the purpose of life was to be astronaut superhero rockstar Mother Theresa, a good son and community member.
Really I’m just here to survive with no other inherent meaning. There is no ultimate secret truth.
But I puzzled out, fairly quickly, that this meant the meaning of life is self-ascribed, that right and wrong, good and bad, are really just evolutionary or experiential programming for survival.
So the other monkey on my back, my pride, grew very scared. If the meaning of life is self-ascribed, then everyone’s worldview is suddenly valid. So the only way to really be successful is to do everything, and be amazingly good at all of the things I do (this view was also influenced by a truly renaissance jack-of-all-trades upbringing under an artist and engineer). I wanted to find a way to get everyone to like me, to accept me.
This typically leads to not doing much, at least not well. But it can be good fun sometimes, and does lead to picking up a variety of parlor tricks and some well-informed perspectives on what other people value in their lives.
So I was a flaneur, trying to pick up any showy or handy skills – trying to shortcut my way through life so that I can pass off as impressive and accomplished – at least over cocktails.
Meanwhile, I still grappled with my own life’s meaning and the psychological gymnastics that were paralyzing me.
Eventually, far more recently, I have begun to realize I just have to go with the flow, at least for now, as long as I have decide to stick it out. Or should I say, in the past couple years I read a couple things which stuck with me:
“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.” – Haruki Murakami from Wind Up Bird Chronicle
“The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.” – Jonathan Haidt from The Happiness Hypothesis
So, one last note about that villain. I found him, alright. A modern day conspiracy theory up there with the best of them. It’s the government man, they’re in it with the aliens, and the Nazis, and Wall Street. And corporations. And the big banks. And your next door neighbor. And Justin Beiber. They’re all in on it.
The ‘it’ in my experience, is something few people seem to grasp – and even fewer recognize its significance without taking ‘it’ for granted. So, what is it?
Sidebar: I am about to name drop Richard Dawkins, who now seems to be mostly known as a sort of religious antimatter – a zealous crusader who sets as counterpoint against zealous organized religion. I don’t really understand why he has done this, but before he started betting on extremism he was quite an amazing writer and computational science and zoology, so I think he deserves the below recognition for his work from the 1970s.
It was another transcendent moment of understanding, when I read Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene.
Specifically, it was his invention of the word meme, and explanation of meme’s profound impact.
The ‘it’ – the evil villain pulling all the strings? There’s really billions of them. And they’re ideas.
“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” – Selfish Gene
“When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” – Selfish Gene
So as a teenager I discovered that we are literally infected by thousands of structures which influence our behavior. And we are literally programmed by the language structures we use, and the social structures we conform to.
Our understanding of the universe is shaped by experience so much that when exposed to new ideas, we can lose our ability to understand old ones.
I think it took me a good decade to get over the initial shock.
The complexity of different ideas is boggling.
As a thought exercise, just picture one individual member of congress. They serve their own ego, and that of their spouse and family. They serve their constituency, but not directly – they must seek a path which has some hope of success against crushing pressures from special interest groups and political opposition. And they face the same little struggles we all face, of trying to stay healthy and find fulfillment. They might be battling addiction, a struggling relationship, diabetes, financial ruin.
No wonder politics is complicated.
People’s minds are pulled in thousands of directions by competing ideas. I like to think of them as a mess of vectors, pulling in all directions in three-dimensional space. If a few vectors happen to pull more strongly in one direction, then a person changes, they take action. But so long as the vectors more or less cancel each other out, we are fated to pursue the same thoughts and actions, expending enormous energy but not getting anywhere new.
So StokeQuest will be investigating how people organize, and why.
How do we get more and more people’s collective vectors to keep pointing in increasingly beneficial directions at an accelerating rate?
Why is Wal-Mart the second-biggest corporation in the world? How did we all end up supporting those memes?
How do movements take shape, and where is the balance between the independent thinker and joiners to a cause?
Why is it so difficult to make healthy choices? Why can’t we do a better job taking care of ourselves, our communities, our cities, our nations, and the next ten generations of humanity in this world?
What does a truly global society look like? What diversity do we give up when we all agree to fundamental rules regarding violence, health, freedom, and environment? Is it even possible to get us to agree? To enforce that agreement without resorting to more violence?
Can we design a meme, or set of them, to inoculate future generations against harmful ideas and give them the tools to develop a better, more fulfilling world with less danger and less suffering?
I will end with a quote from an interview with the infamous marketer Alex Bogusky that I used to have taped over my desk:
“I’m trying to think … midlife crises occur generally because we fear death, right? And I’m pretty sure I don’t fear death. So maybe, what do I fear? …
What I fear — actually, I’ll tell you what it is — what I fear is, I fear” — his eyes start to pink around the rims, his voice cracks — “I fear a moment when my children are older, and they look at me and say, ‘What did you do? The world is like a spiraling cesspool. You were an adult, you needed to do something, I was just a kid. What did you do?’ I want to be able to say, I did this, this, and this. And did my best. Yeah, that’s it.”
Sidebar: Notably absent from this explanation of StokeQuest are the science fiction books which have had enormous impact on my worldview. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide, and Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age stand out foremost, in a league of their own. I’ll also tackle “The Stoke” as a separate discussion in a later post.