People, Places, and Particles.

How the heat in a system affects how, where, and with whom we want to live.

[Originally posted on Substack — sign up here]

I’ve been thinking a lot about colleges recently.

College is exciting and stimulating for many reasons, but in my experience, the best part of school was the ability to meet people (whether after classes or in clubs) and be quite confident that I would have a positive interaction.

I felt as if I had something to learn from every encounter, and that was a strong motivator for me to get outside my dorm room and be sociable. For the most part, everyone in school was approachable, and so these interactions happened very often.

We can imagine a college campus as a closed system, with each person inside behaving like a gas particle. For gases, heat is measured by the kinetic energy of particles within a closed system, and since the likelihood of whizzing around and colliding with another interesting person is very high on a college campus, we can say that college is a heated environment.

After graduating, though, and moving to a big place like New York City, the boundaries of one’s enclosure suddenly become much wider and there’s more room for the particles to spread out. This makes the system a lot colder.

The good news is that this widening of boundaries is compensated by a much larger volume of particles (people) in the city with whom we can collide. The bad news is that even though you may find yourself surrounded by people, they aren’t necessarily approachable people you can genuinely interact with, and so they might as well not exist.

Yes, you can strike up conversations on the subway, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Still, there’s hope for infusing some much needed heat into the system, it just needs to be done intentionally.

As someone who’s been living in NYC for 2 years since graduating, I can attest that the first few months were difficult, but after being more intentional with the people I spent time with and the places I spent time in, I gradually found communities that supplied the missing heat I needed.

Now, I feel confident going to House of Yes or an Effective Altruism NYC event knowing that I’ll likely bump into people with whom I can have meaningful encounters. Again, that’s a huge motivating factor to leave my apartment, and I know many people who haven’t found their communities yet and consequently feel less motivated to get out there and be sociable.

We have to create the heat we want to feel in our environments. If we float around aimlessly in a big city without communities to keep us warm, we’ll freeze.

Why have I been thinking about this?

Well, I recently moved from my apartment to spend 6 weeks in a commune with 8 other friends. We’re staying at a beautiful Airbnb in southern Vermont and all working remotely, keeping each other accountable and pursuing side-projects together on nights and weekends. We cook for each other, make music with each other, and go on long, long walks with each other. It’s magical.

Even though there are only 9 of us in total, I think that the heat of the system is extremely high. The boundaries of the property keep us enclosed, and because we all get along so well, we can interact in any permutation of particles and be confident that something fruitful and enriching will emerge.

I can spend time designing a board game with one friend, and then be happily interrupted by another friend who suggests an impromptu game of spikeball, only to be called inside at dusk for a group dinner where we hold hands and say grace before every meal and launch into a discussion about Foucault. Every moment is charged with the potential for a lovely interaction, and so the commune is a highly heated environment as a result.

In joining this commune, I’ve discovered that I really like when my environment is extra toasty, and I’m willing to sacrifice certain comforts (like privacy, specific brands I like, sleep, etc.) if it means being close and connected to the other members of the commune.

I’m also learning that this lifestyle requires a huge amount of intentionality.

The friend who united us in this specific commune spent 2 months wrangling us together, handling the logistics, and making sure that we would mesh well as a group. He did a fabulous job, but he’s a unique individual with particularly close friendships.

If, in realizing that I desire this level of sustained heat in my environment, I come to the decision that I want to live in shared communal spaces long-term, I’ll have to put a lot of time and attention into that desire. Just like a new arrival to NYC: I won’t find what I’m looking for if I’m not intentional and proactively creating the heat I need.

So here are my final thoughts:

I’d urge you and everyone else reading this to take a minute and reflect on the heat in your environment. Is it warmer or chillier than you’d ideally like it to be? Has Covid syphoned some heat from you, and if so, how do you intend to reclaim it? What are the communities and who are the people who are currently supplying you with most of your heat? What would happen if they went away?

I ask this because the societal default is to live in a cubicle of thick walls with a nuclear family of only a few people. I hope I don’t have to remind the reader that this is not how early humans ever lived, and that this is a modern construction that is socially acceptable but not necessarily desirable. Luckily, constructed systems can be dismantled, and there’s no law of the universe that states how we ought to live and with whom we ought to spend our time. It’s hard to question societal defaults, but we shouldn’t let that difficulty stand in our way of crafting the lifestyles we authentically wish to live.

If we hope to surround ourselves with the warmth we crave, we need to be intentional and create it ourselves.

And by the way, if you want to join a commune with me, my DMs are open! 😉

[Originally posted on Substack — sign up here]

I’m approachable!

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