Crazy, coffee and conundrums: Lessons from Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

In the years that most informed my early adulthood — those from my mid-teens to my mid-20s, say — I frequented the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. I had many late nights and long, deep conversations at the now-closed Fire & Water Cafe (you can now see remnants, or indeed, a new iteration, at Cafe Evolution up the road in Florence).

I visited friends at Smith College, which has an all-female undergraduate student body.

And the city is also known for the Northampton State Hospital, a mental institution that grew so big in its first century so as to be serving nearly 2,500 patients by the mid-1950s.

Northampton State Hospital was also a terrible place — you can actually see some of it in the asylum scenes in the movie "In Dreams" — that in 1978 a judge ordered the institution to reduce its patient load to 50 by 1981.

While the Brewster Decree (or Northampton Decree, as it's sometimes called) didn't fully close the hospital until 1993, you don't go from serving over 2,000 patients down to 50 without largely just discharging your patients out into the streets of the city.

A number of those wandering, previously committed souls were still out wandering the city in the 1990s and early 2000s while I was also out wandering the city. So I learned some stuff from them, too.

"You need to be a little crazy to change the world," write Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler on page 233 of Abundance, "and you can't really fake it."


I drink a lot of coffee. My wife will have a cup when she wakes up, and sometimes, on a day off, she might have a second. On my days off, I'll drink one cup when I wake up, and two or three more throughout the day. If I'm working, I'll have one when I wake up, one while I'm making dinner, and then it's a fairly steady stream of joe until midnight or 1 a.m., depending on when I'm scheduled.

Depending upon whom you ask, coffee might have been discovered as a beverage in the ninth century or the tenth century or perhaps a little bit later, at least for the modern version (thirteenth century).

It was probably more like the seventeenth century when we started mass producing coffee and slurping it like we do.

Something else I enjoy drinking is beer, which we've probably had since we figured out agriculture (leave some grain in a pot, head out for a hunt, it rains, you come back in a few days, drink the water out of the pot and get drunk).

Take an hour of your life to watch "How Beer Saved the World" — you'll probably learn more than you wanted to.

When water wasn't safe to drink because we had sewage and dead animals running into our water supplies and no treatment plants, we were drinking beer, because the fermentation process made it safe to drink.

So, for centuries, we were drinking beer, and then we figured out coffee. We didn't go from half-drunk to sober, Diamandis and Kotler point out, we went from half-drunk to wired.

In his essay Java Man, Malcolm Gladwell gives coffee (and tobacco) a lot of credit for really getting us going as a species.

It is worth noting, as well, that in the original coffeehouses nearly everyone smoked, and nicotine also has a distinctive physiological effect. It moderates mood and extends attention, and, more important, it doubles the rate of caffeine metabolism: it allows you to drink twice as much coffee as you could otherwise. In other words, the original coffeehouse was a place where men of all types could sit all day; the tobacco they smoked made it possible to drink coffee all day; and the coffee they drank inspired them to talk all day. Out of this came the Enlightenment. (The next time we so perfectly married pharmacology and place, we got Joan Baez.)

In time, caffeine moved from the café to the home. In America, coffee triumphed because of the country’s proximity to the new Caribbean and Latin American coffee plantations, and the fact that throughout the nineteenth century duties were negligible. Beginning in the eighteen-twenties, Courtwright tells us, Brazil “unleashed a flood of slave-produced coffee. American per capita consumption, three pounds per year in 1830, rose to eight pounds by 1859.”

What this flood of caffeine did, according to Weinberg and Bealer, was to abet the process of industrialization–to help “large numbers of people to coordinate their work schedules by giving them the energy to start work at a given time and continue it as long as necessary.”

I've certainly had at least (and probably more than) my fair share of focus and productivity thanks to caffeine. Just listen to Kelvin and I slurping away during our JKWD podcasts.

OK, so let's talk about the lessons we learn from Abundance. This was supposed to be a post about the book, remember?

First, let's look at how we move from thinking in a scarcity mindset to thinking in an abundance mindset.

Abundance is wrought of technology.

If I have an orange tree and I pick all the oranges on the lowest branches, I now have a scarcity of oranges. When someone invents the ladder, I now have an abundance of oranges, since I can reach all the fruit on the higher branches.

In the mid-19th century, aluminum was more valuable than gold. The top of the Washington Monument is capped in aluminum. It cost more per ounce than the average daily wage for someone working to build it. In the ensuing decades, researchers in America and France would figure out how to isolate the metal with an electrolytic process, and now it's so easy to get aluminum we wrap our cold pizza in it.

Some 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water, but 97.3 percent of that is salt water. Lots of people today die from lack of clean drinking water, but when we come up with a good desalination technology, the scarcity will go away.

The bottom of pyramid, the domino effect and reworking Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Right now, hundreds of millions or billions of people live in poverty, food scarcity, water scarcity, lack of health care, etc. These people represent the the bottomm of the pyramid — a swath of humanity large enough to boost up the rest of the world, except for the fact that they're suffering.

If we can take care of these people, they can contribute to society, solving more (world) problems.

Think, also, of a mother who spends her day toting water for cleaning and drinking and cooking. Giver her clean running water in her home, and now she can go to work, raising both the wealth of her family and her nation's GDP.

Give Bill Gates enough money to pay his bills, now he can go defeat malaria. Give a painkiller-addicted, depressed MMA fighter a new purpose, and he can go Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who, in the mid-20th century, developed a fundamental hierarchy of needs. It starts with basic human needs (food, water, air and such) at the bottom, and once you can get that taken care of, you can move on to the next level, with the top being self-actualization, or the ability to be personally fulfilled.

Diamandis and Kotler argue for reworking Maslow's pyramid into a three-tier pyramid starting in about the same place, but basically replacing the middle three tiers with a single tier that includes education, energy (as in power, be it solar, battery, etc.) and communication. At the top, you find liberty, freedom and other things that many of us take for granted, like health care.

Other Notes and Resources

Worry Brain

The amygdala is an almond-shaped sliver in the temporal love responsible for assessing danger and then looking to neutralize it. I talked about this in the our crazy brains spisode of the podcast. It's an anxious slice of your brain, and once stimulated, it almost never shuts up. It's responsible for fight or flight, and the biggest problem it has right now is there are very few real reasons to be naturally concerned, so it makes up worst-case scenarios to find a reason to panic.

Don't get caught up in what your amygdala's telling you, or you have problems, and probably not even real ones.

Four motivations for innovation

From the weakest to the strongest, there are the reasons people innovate:

• Curiosity
• Fear
• Wealth
• Significance

In other words, money is actually a stronger driver than many people might admit, but it's still not as strong a driver as the esteem in which you'll be held.

Other resources

A few places you can connect with Diamandis and his projects:

Abundance Hub
Singularity Hub
Singularity University