You update your phone’s software every few weeks. But you are still running your brain on software that was programmed by a small child.

A psychiatrist I greatly admire said something like that. She uses that quote to help people with severe Narcissistic and Anti-Social Personality Disorder. I stole the idea from her, because it applies to almost everyone I know. Please feel free to steal it from me.

But I want to go a little further. You can update your hardware as well.

We are born with brains that are still, in most ways, evolved to handle the challenges human beings faced 12,000 years ago. We survived in groups of 50 or so. You might know 200 people over the course of your lifetime, if you were lucky and smart. Your life expectancy at birth was 25 years or less. If you somehow managed to live long enough you would probably procreate with your second-cousin, and that was good because the alternative was your brother or sister. Life changed dramatically with the seasons, but remained basically the same as the years passed.

Gossip mattered. And it was mostly true. Your reputation was your life.

Your social position in the tribe was the most important thing imaginable. It dictated your very survival.

Everyone had to fit in or face almost certain death.

Nothing was more important than keeping the family together.

If you got embarrassed, humiliated or rejected people might literally remember it for the rest of your life. Therefore, it was good and necessary to fear embarrassment, humiliation and rejection.

It was important to prove yourself to others. Winning arguments mattered because it showed your social standing.

You could assume that everyone else had the same values as you did. Your empathy was usually spot-on.

Free-loaders had to be punished. And it was easy to punish wrong-doers. Everyone knew everyone else.

You looked up to your elders because anyone who survived more than 50 or 60 years was someone you would be crazy not to imitate.

If you were a man, you wanted to be with a woman as soon as she could conceive a child. And you needed to control that young woman to make sure her child was really yours. If you were a woman, you wanted to be with the oldest guy you could get. He was the one with access to resources, and he was the one with genes that had proven their ability to survive.

On the other hand, the tribe itself needed to survive, and that meant keeping everyone on board. Which meant that most tribes figured out some form of marriage where one man got one woman until one of them died. And the tribe also had to prevent inbreeding, which meant that the most complicated structure in early human tribes was usually the marriage arrangements. As a result, people spent an inordinate amount of time discussing each other’s relationships.

It was important and necessary to keep everyone happy, to try to please others.

And any time a conflict broke out you had to choose sides.


Now, the world is a different place. You will know thousands of people over the course of your life. You may end up in multiple families or tribes, not just one. You may decide not to marry or procreate at all, and if you do there is no reason to assume it will even be someone from the same ethnicity, let alone your extended family. Disruptive technological change used to happen once in a lifetime. Then it started happening once a generation. Now it happens every ten years or so, and it’s speeding up. As the years pass, nothing stays the same.

And our poor little 12,000 year-old brains are not keeping up.

Here are some guide posts that I have used to help my ancient brain survive in the modern world. These are the realizations that have helped me update my hardware.

Gossip is nearly always completely false, and whoever is spreading it is usually the one who has a problem. I have multiple reputations in many tribes and most of them don’t matter at all. People think about me a lot less than I think about people thinking about me.

My social position doesn’t mean squat. What matters is how healthy my families are. My abilities, skills and mindset determine the likelihood that I can enter into healthy families, and exit unhealthy ones.

Fitting in is a total waste of time because if you fit in with one tribe it just means you don’t fit in with another. And there might as well be an infinite number of tribes out there.

Keeping the family together is only necessary if the family is sick or abusive, so trying to force people to stay together always just means supporting abusers, predators and co-dependents. Trying to control a family is never a winning strategy. In fact, any attempt to manipulate, control or influence anyone’s relationship to anyone else is always going to blow up in your face.

Fear of embarrassment, failure and rejection is nothing more than self-sabotage and procrastination. I can remember maybe two times when someone else got embarrassed. I can remember at most two failures suffered by other people. Can you remember even one example of something embarrassing happening to someone else?

Proving myself to others? No one cares. Winning arguments? The only thing I “win” is an enemy. Trying to be right? Just prolongs the suffering. The only thing I admit when I say I was wrong is that I’m more intelligent today than I was yesterday.

Other people absolutely do not have the same values you do, and what’s worse, most people don’t even know what their true, core values are. As a result, whenever you think you are empathizing, it is very possible that you are merely projecting or being co-dependent.

It’s often hard to figure out who was really in the wrong. It’s impossible to figure out who is really “free-loading”. The only thing that makes sense is for me to focus one-hundred percent on my own values.

There is no need to control anyone for any reason, and no one needs to latch on to anyone else in order to acquire resources. Your elders might be wise. Or, they might just be stuck in their ways.

People-pleasing just tells the people you’re pleasing to walk all over you. If you want to say no, that’s a good enough reason to say no. If you want to leave, that’s a good enough reason to leave. And if someone else wants to say no to you, that’s a good enough reason for them to say no.

I have regretted it every single time I have ever chosen sides in conflicts between other people. The best advice I’ve ever heard in my enter life was four syllables long: “Stay out of it.”