Entropy: Why Life Always Seems to Get More Complicated

June 26th, 2017 / No Comments »

pieces of the puzzle 1925422 1920 300x200 Entropy: Why Life Always Seems to Get More Complicated

(Reposted from James Clear)

Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

This pithy statement references the annoying tendency of life to cause trouble and make things difficult. Problems seem to arise naturally on their own, while solutions always require our attention, energy, and effort. Life never seems to just work itself out for us. If anything, our lives become more complicated and gradually decline into disorder rather than remaining simple and structured.

Why is that?

Murphy’s Law is just a common adage that people toss around in conversation, but it is related to one of the great forces of our universe. This force is so fundamental to the way our world works that it permeates nearly every endeavor we pursue. It drives many of the problems we face and leads to disarray. It is the one force that governs everybody’s life: Entropy.

What is Entropy and Why Does It Matter?

What is entropy? Here’s a simple way to think about it:

Imagine that you take a box of puzzle pieces and dump them out on a table. In theory, it is possible for the pieces to fall perfectly into place and create a completed puzzle when you dump them out of the box. But in reality, that never happens.


Quite simply, because the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Every piece would have to fall in just the right spot to create a completed puzzle. There is only one possible state where every piece is in order, but there are a nearly infinite number of states where the pieces are in disorder. Mathematically speaking, an orderly outcome is incredibly unlikely to happen at random.

Similarly, if you build a sand castle on the beach and return a few days later, it will no longer be there. There is only one combination of sand particles that looks like your sand castle. Meanwhile, there are a nearly infinite number of combinations that don’t look like it.

Again, in theory, it is possible for the wind and waves to move the sand around and create the shape of your sand castle. But in practice, it never happens. The odds are astronomically higher that sand will be scattered into a random clump. 

These simple examples capture the essence of entropy. Entropy is a measure of disorder. And there are always far more disorderly variations than orderly ones.

Why Does Entropy Matter for Your Life?

Here’s the crucial thing about entropy: it always increases over time.

It is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Left to its own devices, life will always become less structured. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. With enough time, even mountains erode and their precise edges become rounded. The inevitable trend is that things become less organized.

This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is one of the foundational concepts of chemistry and it is one of the fundamental laws of our universe. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system will never decrease. 

“The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature.” —Arthur Eddington

The great British scientist Arthur Eddington claimed, “The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” 

In the long run, nothing escapes the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The pull of entropy is relentless. Everything decays. Disorder always increases.

Without Effort, Life Tends to Lose Order

Before you get depressed, there is good news.

You can fight back against the pull of entropy. You can solve a scattered puzzle. You can pull the weeds out of your garden. You can clean a messy room. You can organize individuals into a cohesive team. 

But because the universe naturally slides toward disorder, you have to expend energy to create stability, structure, and simplicity. Successful relationships require care and attention. Successful houses require cleaning and maintenance. Successful teams require communication and collaboration. Without effort, things will decay.

This insight—that disorder has a natural tendency to increase over time and that we can counteract that tendency by expending energy—reveals the core purpose of life. We must exert effort to create useful types of order that are resilient enough to withstand the unrelenting pull of entropy. 

“The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” —Steven Pinker

Maintaining organization in the face of chaos is not easy. In the words of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, “The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life because everything is pulling you to be more and more complex.”

Entropy will always increase on its own. The only way to make things orderly again is to add energy. Order requires effort. 

Entropy in Daily Life

Entropy helps explain many of the mysteries and experiences of daily life.

For example:

Why Life is Remarkable

Consider the human body.

The collection of atoms that make up your body could be arranged in a virtually infinite number of ways and nearly all of them lead to no form of life whatsoever. Mathematically speaking, the odds are overwhelmingly against your very presence. You are a very unlikely combination of atoms. And yet, here you are. It is truly remarkable.

In a universe where entropy rules the day, the presence of life with such organization, structure, and stability is stunning.

Why Art is Beautiful

Entropy offers a good explanation for why art and beauty are so aesthetically pleasing. Artists create a form of order and symmetry that, odds are, the universe would never generate on its own. It is so rare in the grand scheme of possibilities. The number of beautiful combinations is far less than the number of total combinations. Similarly, seeing a symmetrical face is rare and beautiful when there are so many ways for a face to be asymmetrical.

Beauty is rare and unlikely in a universe of disorder. And this gives us good reason to protect art. We should guard it and treat it as something sacred.

Why Marriage is Difficult

One of the most famous opening lines in literature comes from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. He writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

There are many ways a marriage can fail—financial stress, parenting issues, crazy in-laws, conflicts in core values, lack of trust, infidelity, and so on. A deficiency in any one of these areas can wreck a family.

To be happy, however, you need some degree of success in each major area. Thus, all happy families are alike because they all have a similar structure. Disorder can occur in many ways, but order, in only a few.

Why Optimal Lives Are Designed Not Discovered

You have a combination of talents, skills, and interests that are specific to you. But you also live in a larger society and culture that were not designed with your specific abilities in mind. Given what we know about entropy, what do you think the odds are that the environment you happen to grow up in is also the optimal environment for your talents?

It is very unlikely that life is going to present you with a situation that perfectly matches your strengths. Out of all the possible scenarios you could encounter, it’s far more likely that you’ll encounter one that does not cater to your talents.

Evolutionary biologists use a term called “mismatch conditions” to describe when an organism is not well-suited for a condition it is facing. We have common phrases for mismatch conditions: “like a fish out of water” or “bring a knife to a gunfight.” Obviously, when you are in a mismatch condition, it is more difficult to succeed, to be useful, and to win.

It is likely you’ll face mismatch conditions in your life. At the very least, life will not be optimal—maybe you didn’t grow up in the optimal culture for your interests, maybe you were exposed to the wrong subject or sport, maybe you were born at the wrong time in history. It is far more likely that you are living in a mismatch condition than in a well-matched one.

Knowing this, you must take it upon yourself to design your ideal lifestyle. You have to turn a mismatch condition into a well-matched one. Optimal lives are designed, not discovered. 

Murphy’s Law Applied to the Universe

Finally, let’s return to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Entropy provides a good explanation for why Murphy’s Law seems to pop up so frequently in life. There are more ways things can go wrong than right. The difficulties of life do not occur because the planets are misaligned or because some cosmic force is conspiring against you. It is simply entropy at work. As one scientist put it, “Entropy is sort of like Murphy’s Law applied to the entire universe.” 

It is nobody’s fault that life has problems. It is simply a law of probability. There are many disordered states and few ordered ones. Given the odds against us, what is remarkable is not that life has problems, but that we can solve them at all.


The Upgraded 4 Burner Theory

March 27th, 2017 / No Comments »

Stove Burners 300x200 The Upgraded 4 Burner Theory

A while back I read an excellent article by master blogger James Clear on what he called the 4-burner theory. Despite loving the overall concept, I rejected the idea of only having 4 burners. Partially I rejected the number 4 because I prefer odd numbers to even, partially because I just couldn’t quite get around the 4 generic burners and wanted to create my own unique burners. Mostly, I rejected the theory because I love to cook and dream of cooking on one of those bad-ass, huge, 6 burner Viking stoves. Since I’m unlikely to ever have a house big enough to warrant an industrial stove, at least I want one of those fancy cooktops with 4 burners and the grill-thingy in the middle. So, let’s imagine 5 total burners.

What is the point of the burner theory anyway, you ask? Each burner represents a priority in our life. Our top 5 priorities make up our lovely stove. The concept suggests that we can only have a few things on our metaphorical stove at one time, and certainly we can’t effectively work with all of our burners on high all the time. Everything burns when we try this. Therefore, not only do you need to narrow your priorities down to 4-6 items (whatever the size of your “stove”), but you also then need to identify which ones are on high in the front and what is simmering in the back.

Recently, if you have been paying attention to my blog, or lack thereof, it is clear that writing for my website went off the burners. Now part of this is caused by my difficulty with writing (I get anxious about it and then procrastinate), part of this is that my other priorities have been taking up time and energy, so the marketing pot has been off the stove entirely, waiting for a chance to get back on a burner.

Here’s how I think my burners should look: Front and center are My Business and Parenting and these are high heat priorities, needing lots of my time and attention. In the back coming along nicely on lower heat are Relationship and Friends/Family.  In the middle is my Health/Self-Care. When this combo is in play, I am feeling good, taking loving care of myself and my connections and actively working in my business and on being a good mom.

The problem comes in when there are additional requests for my attention. For example, my family was in town in January and February. It was fabulous to have them here, but something needed to move to the back burner when they moved up to the front burner. Thus, no blogs for a while, and I missed my volunteering days at my daughter’s school.  Add in a big project, like writing a book (stay tuned, I really, actually, have one that is soooo close!!!!!) and all of a sudden I need to stay home on Friday night to put time in on that project instead of relaxing with my honey. Get the tradeoffs that need to be made?  It is critical to be realistic with yourself not just about what your real priorities are, but also how you’re going to balance them over time.

Take a moment and identify your top priorities.  Do you have a 4, 5, or 6 burner stove? What is up front on high and what can be on simmer? Anything on the counter waiting for a chance at a burner? When do the burners change for you? How can you plan for this more, and get transparent with others about where your priorities are this month? Getting clear, making a plan to address your priorities and being real about how much you can actually attend to at one time makes all the difference in managing the competing priorities of life. Happy cooking!

You Are Flawed. And So Are Your Heroes.

February 1st, 2017 / No Comments »


superheroes 534104 960 720 300x225 You Are Flawed. And So Are Your Heroes.

(Reposted from Steve at Nerdfitness.com)

My friend Mike was orphaned before he really got to know his parents.

Fortunately, he was was adopted and raised by a loving family. They didn’t have much, but they did whatever they could to provide for him. Despite growing up with these amazing people, Mike always felt like he didn’t belong.

He did what he could to hide his real feelings: that he’d never belong, that he’d always BE on the outside looking in, that nobody really appreciated him.

You see, the real version of Mike, the part he locked away inside, would terrify others. So he kept it bottled up and put on this act that everything is cool when inside he was deeply conflicted. I was fortunate enough to get to spend quality time with Mike, get to know him for who he really was, and I learned to accept all parts of him.

My other friend Jimmy is also an orphan surprisingly, though his path has been drastically different from Mike’s.

You see, Jimmy was born rich. Like, Scrooge McDuck rich. He WAS old enough to remember his parent’s accidental deaths, and it crushed him.  Although all of Jimmy’s needs were taken care of (thank you, life insurance policy), this environment and upbringing created some challenges.

I’ve known Jimmy for years, and it’s been tough to watch him work through layer up on layer of destructive, obsessive, rageaholic behavior.

Like many of us, Jimmy’s been searching for meaning his entire life – everything else has been handed to him, and it’s left him unfulfilled. Who could blame him? So he needs more, thinking this will fill the hole in his heart, at all times.

Despite all the money, and toys, and attractive women, and success, there’s one thing he’ll never have:


He is hurting internally, and yet he feels like he can’t share this with anybody. After all, nobody wants to hear about the problems a very wealthy, good looking person has, right? “Those problems aren’t real! Try not being able to put food on the table for your family!”

I’ve known both Mike and Jimmy since I was a little kid, and have grown up with them.

Two orphans with tragic lives, two very different upbringings, and real internal pain and shame that they feel they can’t share with anybody.

These tales might sound vaguely familiar to you.

You see, Mike’s real name is Clark. Clark Kent. Better known as Superman.

And Jimmy? That’s Bruce Wayne. Better known as Batman.

Superheroes are flawed. That’s what makes them interesting.

We all have superheroes that we love and relate closely to.

Have you noticed something about the best characters? The ones that are written so convincingly that we can’t help to become deeply invested in them as people?

They have critical flaws and tons of baggage that often sabotage their own efforts. Although they are superhuman, they are – with the exception of Superman – human.

And that’s what makes them interesting.

Every superhero that’s worth a damn has a strong character flaw or weakness. Superman’s weakness is kryptonite, sure. But really it’s that he will always feel like an outsider and feels an overwhelming obsession to save people who don’t appreciate or understand him. Batman’s weakness is the fact that he’ll never be good enough, never sacrifice enough, and never save enough people. Enough is never enough.

Let’s go across the aisle to Marvel, and we’ll find similarly flawed characters in Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Tony Stark’s Iron Man. These guys’ flaws are very plain to see, and it’s what makes us love them. Hell, even squeaky clean Captain America only really became interesting when he was rewritten with some edge and… gasp… flaws!

How about female heroes like Black Widow? Natasha Romanoff was raised and trained as a freaking assassin and will spend the rest of her existence trying to right the wrongs of her past.

We love these flawed superheroes, because it makes them relatable, vulnerable, and REAL. It gives them an identity; as readers of comics or viewers of a movie, we get to look inside these people and know that they feel real pain too, and we see parts of ourselves in them.

We accept two things:

  • These superheroes are fictional characters.
  • There are parts of them I can relate to and learn from.

We accept these characters for who they are, and know that their flaws don’t define them but in fact, have shaped them into who they are.

Why, then, don’t we do this with our real-life heroes and ourselves?
Read more.

Making Connections Through Sharing Simple Joys

November 21st, 2016 / No Comments »

pool 929104 960 720 300x200 Making Connections Through Sharing Simple Joys
If you believe the story my Mom tells, I could swim before I could walk.  Evidently I was in baby swim lessons by the time I was something like 3 months old.  Then I grew up near the water much of my life.  So it surprised everyone, even me, when I moved to Colorado a million years ago for grad school and then never moved back home.  Out here in the high desert, I have to be a bit planned about getting near water…hiking to a lake, or walking near a creek, hitting up the outdoor pools in the summer and the hot springs the rest of the year.  Part of the joy for me of getting near water isn’t just the swimming part.  It is also watching other people love the wonder of the water.

It seems like a pool can especially bring out the best in people.  Maybe it’s because so many different people all come together in the same space.  Maybe it’s because the pools we go to are extra awesome, like the spring fed place we go to in the summer, or the hot springs I just visited this week.

One day this summer I was having fun people watching at my favorite outdoor pool.  I like being surprised by people.  It’s fun to see the nondescript guy you wouldn’t have thought twice about doing magnificent moves off the diving board.  Or the grandmother who looked all class as she walked down the same board and then pulled off a totally unexpected flip.  All the differences you could see in front of you…age, race, fitness, level of interest in tattoos, the goggle wearers and the non-goggle wearers, and the overall glorious lack of hostile judgement.  Everyone just got to be themselves, with each other.  There was this gentle, shared joy at being outside in a cool pool on a hot day.

It wasn’t perfect, of course.  For example, my daughter could tell me which kids were mean, but instead of railing against them, she just moved to the other side of the pool.  I wonder if we could offer this gift to ourselves and each other more often: sharing simple joys and making easy connections, even with folks who aren’t just like us, being outside and moving our bodies.  What might it be like if we stopped being so angry at people who are different from us, and instead gave them a smile and participated in friendly banter, like you do at the local pool with the person sitting next to you.  If you share a chair on the pool deck, or offer a kind word in the locker room, maybe help a kiddo find their lost diving toy, why can’t we do more of this sort of easy going interaction with each other on the street or at the coffee shop?  At school when we’re picking up our kids?  Here’s a really good one:  when we’re driving, even in traffic.  Imagine how you get along at a place like the pool, and bring it into the rest of your life.  Really, it’s less of a threat than you might imagine.


Stay Right When You’re Wronged

October 18th, 2016 / No Comments »

stay right 300x199 Stay Right When You’re Wronged

(Reposted from Rick Hanson, PhD. on August 14, 2016)
What happens after you’re mistreated?

The Practice:
Stay right when you’re wronged.

It’s easy to treat people well when they treat you well. The real test is when they treat you badly.

Think of times you’ve been truly wronged, in small ways or big ones. Maybe someone stole something , turned others against you, broke an agreement, cheated on you, or spoke unfairly or abusively.

When things like these happen, I feel mad, hurt, startled, wounded, sad. Naturally it arises to want to strike back and punish, get others to agree with me, and make a case against the other person in my own mind.

These feelings and impulses are normal. But what happens if you get caught up in reactions and go overboard? (Which is different from keeping your cool, seeing the big picture, and acting wisely – which we’ll explore below.) There’s usually a release and satisfaction, and thinking you’re justified. It feels good.

For a little while.

But bad things usually follow. The other person overreacts, too, in a vicious cycle. Other people – relatives, friends, co-workers – get involved and muddy the water. You don’t look very good when you act out of upset, and others remember. It gets harder to work through the situation in a reasonable way. After the dust settles, you feel bad inside.

As the Buddha said long ago, “Getting angry with another person is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.” You can see much the same thing internationally. Gandhi put it so well: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Sure, you need to clarify your position, stand up for yourself, set boundaries, speak truth to power. The art – and I’m still working on it, myself! – is to do these things without the fiery excesses that have bad consequences for you, others, and our fragile planet.


Start by getting centered, which often takes just a dozen seconds or so:

  • Pause – You rarely get in trouble for what you don’t say or do. Give yourself the gift of time, even just a few seconds.
  • Have compassion for yourself – This a moment of feeling “ouch, that hurts, I wish this hadn’t happened.” A neurologically savvy trick for activating self-compassion is to first recall the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
  • Get on your own side – This means being for yourself, not against others. It can help to remember a time when you felt strong, like doing something that was physically challenging, or sticking up for someone you loved.
  • Make a plan – Start figuring out what you’re going to do, or at least where you’ll start.

And now that you’re on firmer ground, here are some practical suggestions; use the ones you like:

  • Clarify the facts – What actually happened?
  • Rate the bad event accurately – On a 0 – 10 awfulness scale (a dirty look is a 1 and nuclear war is a 10), how bad was it, really? If the event is a 3 on the awfulness scale, why have emotional reactions that are a 5 (or 9!) on the 0 – 10 upset scale?
  • See the big picture – Recognize the OK aspects of the situation mixed up with the bad ones. Put the situation in the larger context of unrelated good things happening for you, and your lifetime altogether. See the biggest picture of all: how your experiences are continually changing and it’s not worth getting all caught up in them.
  • Reflect about the other person – Consider the “10,000 causes” upstream that led him or her to do whatever happened. Be careful about assuming it was intentional; much of the time you’re just a bit player in other people’s drama. Try to have compassion for them, which will make you feel better. If applicable, take responsibility for your own part in the matter (but don’t blame yourself unfairly). You can have compassion and forgiveness for others while still considering their actions to be morally wrong.
  • Do what you can, concretely – As possible, protect yourself from people who wrong you; shrink the relationship to the size that is safe. Get support; it’s important for others to “bear witness” when you’ve been mistreated. Build up your resources. Get good advice – from a friend, therapist, lawyer, or even the police. As appropriate, pursue justice.
  • Act with unilateral virtue – Live by your code even if others do not. This will make you feel good, lead others to respect you, and create the best chance that the person who wronged you will treat you better in the future.
  • Say what needs to be said – There is a good formula from the field of “nonviolent communication”: “When X happens (stated objectively; not “when you are a jerk”), I feel Y (emotions; not “I fell you are an idiot”), because I need Z (deep needs like: “to be safe, respected, emotionally close to others, autonomous and not bossed around”).

Then, if it would be useful, you can make a request for the future. Some examples: “If I bother you, could you talk with me directly?” “Could you not swear at me?” “Could you treat your agreements with me and your children as seriously as you do those at work?”

  • Move on – For your own sake, start releasing your angry or hurt thoughts and feelings. Stop your mind from obsessing about the past, and focus on the present and future. Turn toward what is going well, what you’re grateful for. Do things that feel pleasurable.

In the garden of your life, you have to pull some weeds, sure, but mainly focus on planting flowers.

  • Be at peace – All you can really do is what you can do. Others are going to do whatever they do, and realistically, sometimes it won’t be that great. Many people disappoint: they’ve got a million things swirling around in their head, life’s been tough, there were issues in their childhood, their ethics are fuzzy, their thinking is clouded, etc. It’s the real world, and cannot be perfected.

You have to find peace in your heart, not out there in the world. A peace that comes from seeing clearly, from building up and focusing on good things in your own garden, and from letting go.