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The Tuna Fish Ice Cream Problem
When 1 + 1 + 1 = … 2 … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ?
From time to time, I find myself either upset or anxious for no discernible reason. Sometimes this feeling can quite simply be attributed to garden-variety depression or ennui. Other times, however, more often than not, negative feelings are a cue. Something is off and I don’t know what.
The difficulty lies in knowing how to tell the difference between ennui caused by a short serotonin transporter allele and ennui that suggests a change is in order. (Although to some extent, if you’ve got the short allele then I’m not sure there *is* a difference)
Anywho, I recently took a stroll through my neighborhood pondering the unusually aggressive pit of wrongness my gut seemed highly intent on making me aware of. It was unclear what it was that wasn’t in order. Then I remembered the story of the tuna fish ice cream. Almost immediately my anxiety resolved. As if by magic, once I realized the peculiar nature of my distress, solutions began to present themselves.
Now the story of the tuna fish ice cream:
A man is walking along the road when he passes a shop selling tuna salad. He loves tuna salad so he purchases a quart and sets off on his. A bit later, he passes an ice cream shop selling vanilla ice cream. He loves ice cream so he purchases a quart of that as well. Upon arriving home, he has a bright idea. What if he mixed the two!
Recognizing that he enjoys both individually, he whips the tuna salad and vanilla ice cream into the world’s first batch of Tuna Fish Ice Cream! However, as the first spoonful hits his mouth, he is immediately repulsed by what he has done. Having been mixed, both the tuna fish and the ice cream are now completely unusable.
Sometimes it’s possible to like everything about your life except for the subjective experience of living it. In my experience this usually happens when your life has unwittingly become tuna fish ice cream.
Here’s how the tuna fish ice cream gets whipped up in my own life:
Do I like my friends? Yes
Do I like my job? Yes
Do I like eating pizza? Yes
Do I like drinking? Yes
Do I like working out? Yes
But. Do I like doing my job while tired and hungover? Do I like drinking and hanging out with my friends while I’m stressed out about work projects? Do I like eating pizza if I haven’t had time to work out due to social and work obligations? Do I like working out if I just ate several slices of pepperoni pizza?
These are just surface-level. The real conflict happens when the individual components start to engage in trench warfare with one another. Which is to say that if your spouse really hates your job you’re likely to find yourself looking for a new job or a new spouse pretty soon.
Life doesn’t just happen when we engage in an activity because our experience of any action depends on the emotional and historical context we bring to it. Thus managing your life effectively means stacking synergies. Juice cleansing and yoga are a stacked synergy. Binge eating and yoga are not a stacked synergy. Having finance bro friends is a stacked synergy when you’re working on Wall Street.
People will end relationships, friendships, careers, ditch lovers, and drop hobbies all to avoid guzzling scoop after heaping scoop of tuna fish ice cream. There are lots of things that money can buy, but a cohesive and coherent sense of self isn’t one of them. That requires real cultivation. And cultivation requires trimming hedges and burning the undergrowth so that new people, places, and ideas can thrive.
I think about how it is well documented that a marriage based on shared values is more likely to succeed. But it’s not just marriages that require shared values to be successful. Companies, friendships, hobbies. Nearly all aspects of life need to align to maximize stacked synergies and “turbocharge” our overall life experience. Happy people intuit this. Some of us have had to figure it out the hard way. Some of us are still figuring it out.
Note: While I was researching this article I learned that some psychopaths actually enjoy fish-flavored ice cream. These people have much much deeper issues… far outside the scope of these gentle musings.