I was giving a talk in Tahoe at one of those TED-for-the-cool-kids events a while back, and right after I came off-stage, a blonde twenty-something woman in flowing white robes took the stage to offer her spiritual wisdom-as a self-proclaimed guru.
I was fascinated by what life experiences could have led such a young person to be so fully realized, to have the insights and grounding to be ready to share her wisdom with the world. So I hung around to hear her talk.
Her claim to fame (and heavenly glory)?
A mere 24 months earlier, she was a coked-up club girl who'd hit her "rock-bottom" only to land on a copy of a Marianne Williamson book. Poring through it, she'd read about Marianne talking about her experience with A Course in Miracles (a supposedly channeled work about Jesus' true teachings, popular in the New Age market).
That apparently was enough for this recent convert to immediately start teaching, positioning herself as a "guru," scoring a spot on Oprah, and dispensing nuggets of manifestation and self-esteem advice as blithely as Jim Cramer doles out stock picks.
At the time I was floored. That conference had built its brand on the "big gets"––world renowned tech titans, astrophysicists and artists––all sharing their knowledge in intimate settings, and they'd landed this precocious pretender as their spokesperson for Spirit.
And her shit wasn't even remotely original. It was a copy (her book) of a copy (Marianne Williamson's book) of a Thing (A Course in Miracles)!
But she had the looks, the New York PR connections, the Road to Damascus conversion experience, and a whole lotta hustle. In other words, she wanted it, and was prepared to do whatever it took to get it. If it wasn't dancing on the tables at Da Club, it would be sitting beside an altar on Da Stage.
A few weeks ago I rewatched cognitive neuroscientist Donald Hoffman's TED talk "Do We See Reality As It Is?" and something he shared reminded me of that conference and that unlikely guru.
His lab has developed computer simulations of evolution to try and figure out what traits best select for evolutionary fitness (or extinction).
They ran hundreds of thousands of simulations comparing three different characters:
And they found that the 100% Fitness/0% Reality folks outcompeted the other two every single time.
So Hoffman coined a term for this surprising phenomenon:
Fitness Beats Truth (FBT).
Meaning, that if I am optimized for food, sex, and survival I will thrive and outcompete anyone who is indexing for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.
So even if my NoTruth diet is riddled with magical thinking, self-dealing, or otherwise douchey behavior, if it increases money, fame, sex, power, attention (or more prosaically, food, clothing, shelter and offspring) then I will be rewarded handsomely for my delusions. Truth be damned.
So that explains how a dude blown apart by the cosmos on ten hits of acid might end up broke and homeless. Sure, he glimpsed what Nikola Tesla had hinted at that "the universe can only be understood in terms of energy, frequency and vibration!" but he might have overclocked his processor in the expansion. High on truth. Low on fitness.
Or the converse: it also explains how spirituality has been so thoroughly captured by lifestyle influencers, instagram shamans and seven-figure manifesters. They're not optimized for Truth, or even remotely interested in it. They're optimized for fitness––likes, clicks and bucks. And that works way better.
After all, how many of us know of some wise old zen monk eclipsed by a hunky guy shooting #inspo posts for the 'gram?
Or an academic who just might hold the keys to solving oil, conflict, climate, finance, or farming, who's books (and tweets) disappear into a void compared to their smooth-talking colleague who landed a slot on Rogan?
Or a selfless statesman trying to broker political solutions to a world in crisis, out fund-raised, and outvoted by someone with a knack for rhyming tweets?
If FBT, Fitness Beat Truth, all the time, every time, we might as well slit our wrists now.
But sometimes, once in a blue moon, the opposite happens.
Truth beats Fitness.
Not often, definitely not always. But sometimes.
The saints of the Axial Age––from Buddha to Jesus to Zarathustra––lived lives no longer (and often a good deal shorter) than any of us. But their truthbombs still send shockwaves through the world. All because they prioritized the Truth that burned inside them over any instinct for self-preservation.
There are others today.
Think of Greta Thunberg and her impact. Unless you're in the tank for the "Greta-as-sock-puppet-for-BigGreen narrative" you can't help but wonder how an acutely self conscious kid on the spectrum could suddenly galvanize the global eco-crisis in the span of a few years. Her truth far outperformed her "fitness." Because her "truth" was others' truth too. It just took someone with enough courage and clarity to say it unfiltered and out loud.
Or take two figures from the current crisis in Eastern Europe––Russian dissident Navalny and Ukrainian president Zelensky. Both of them were solidly decent guys, doing their bit to subvert the dominant Putin paradigm, until they hit their #truthbomb moments.
For Navalny, who had survived a sinister poisoning attack, his moment came live streaming a YouTube call where he punked his attackers into thinking that he was their boss. He then tricked them into confessing their crimes, live. On video.
It was ballsy AF, ripped the mask off Putin's plausible deniability, and played like a digital age equivalent to "counting coup" (the traditional warrior practice of going into enemy territory and touching your enemy with a ritual staff, rather than with a weapon––considered the ultimate risk and honor).
Then, as further dedication to his Truth Beats Fitness philosophy, Navalny returned home to accept imprisonment rather than live in exile.
For Zelensky, a comic and performer before becoming Ukraine's president, but otherwise largely unknown and unremarkable, his moment came in the first week of Russia's invasion. When Western agencies offered to evacuate him to safer ground, he replied "I don't need a ride, I need ammunition!"
That single, pithy statement (along with a series of selfie videos and ongoing gutsy decisions) galvanized Ukrainian resistance, pulled NATO together in a way that it hadn't been in years, prompted Germany to open its checkbooks and double down on war spending in ways that neither Obama or Trump had achieved, and, wait-for-it, did the most unthinkable of miracles...
Created a moment of bipartisan consensus in Washington DC that approved stiffer Russian sanctions than Biden even asked for! Republicans (minus the unimpeachable Tucker Carlson) even broke with Trump's boot-licking of Putin, and took a clear stand against.
This Truth Beats Fitness moment, can only come when a person has set aside their own personal agenda (i.e. seeking pleasure and avoiding pain). Once they commit to Truth, anything becomes possible. Their power expands exponentially.
It's paradoxically why suicide bombers are so terrifying and why martyred saints are so inspiring.
Gandhi knew this and even coined a term for it. Satyagraha. "Truth Force." The power that is unlocked when a person stands deeply in integrity, in humanity. It was enough to topple the British Empire, it was enough to desegregate the American and African South.
It could be enough to save us now.
Because as long as we're playing it safe, and playing it selfish, we will continue to get #Fitspo Fitness over #truthbomb Truth.
But if we can flip the script, so that Truth Beats Fitness, we have a chance.
It's the old Kubrick film Spartacus, where the slave rebels all choose to be crucified rather than turn in their leader.
"I'd rather be a free man in my grave," sang Jimmy Cliff, "than living as a puppet or a slave!"
That Spartacus moment still resonates. Even for youngsters who've never seen the original film, they've seen it riffed and referenced a dozen times, from South Park to the Simpsons.
Shakespeare's Caesar said it best, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once."
That turns the Fitness Beats Truth theorem on its head.
It could even give us an updated version of our own––something like:
"Evolutionarily fit cowards die fearfully a thousand times, but Truthful heroes die courageously, and but once."
No one gets out of here alive. Navalny knows it. Zelensky does too. We're in the middle of their passion plays right now, but we all know the inevitable ending.
It's not about getting a reprieve or an airlift out, it's about dying well, once.
The only question then is how to take their example and find Satyagraha for all of us.
So that Truth doesn't just beat fitness once in a blue moon. Truth could transform Fitness––from selfish self-preservation, into selfless shared transformation.
Now that really would be a Course of Miracles worth writing a book about.
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