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The Road to Helldorado
It's paved with good marketing
The promise of quick and effortless weight loss is facing the elevator to my daughter’s pediatrician’s office.
The cardboard popup advertisement informs you that through the magic of CoolSculpting, those stubborn bits of belly fat can be washed away.
For anyone who’s struggled to lose weight, the promise of sitting in a chair watching TV for thirty minutes while a lab-coated Michelangelo sculpts you into chiseled marble is tempting. Maybe it really is that easy. Maybe you don’t need to change your lifestyle. Maybe you do need to sign up for six sessions at the low, low price of 999.95.
I don’t know if CoolSculpting works or not. I don’t particularly care. It’s the latest in a long history of strange devices and technology promising to use SCIENCE to relieve your need to put any effort into getting the body you want. There will be many more, and they’ll continue printing money because they tap into a fundamental human desire: to cheat at life’s greatest challenges.
The mythical inspiration for CoolSculpting and its many bedfellows is as old as human thought. We all fear aging, losing our beauty, and losing our sense of pride when we look in the mirror. And we’ll go to great lengths to fight it.
In his eponymous Epic, Gilgamesh is tormented by the death of his closest friend Enkidu, and he sets off on a quest for immortality to escape the same fate. He travels to the end of the earth to find Utnapishtim, the immortal human who was granted everlasting life for surviving the great flood that was created to wipe out mankind.1
When Gilgamesh eventually finds him, he fails Utnapishtim’s test to earn immortality. But there’s another option. Utna tells Gilgy about a magic plant growing at the bottom of the ocean, which will make him young again if he eats it. So Gilgamesh ties rocks to his feet to reach the bottom of the ocean, takes the plant from its watery depths, and brings it back to the surface, elated at his good fortune.
Versions of this myth abound across cultures and time:
Chinese mythology spoke of Mount Penglai, where the immortal gods held an elixir of life.
Indian mythology referenced “Amrita,” another elixir of immortality, as early as the Rigveda in ~1500 BC.
Herodotus wrote in ~500 BC about a magical pool where the Macrobians bathed, keeping them looking young and healthy until age 120.2
We have always searched for magical answers to life’s most challenging problems. There’s something deeply human about it. And it seems to abound in areas where there are both widespread experiences of the problem and a certain degree of futility.
You know how to come close to eternal youth. It’s not hard to figure out what you should and shouldn’t consume and should and shouldn’t do. But we want to believe it is rocket science because then we need some mystical solution from the aether to save us. We need that plant from the bottom of the ocean. We need to be CoolSculpted.
Looking for El Dorado should be a cue that something is off. It means we’re not confronting one of two problems.
Either there is a simpler, straightforward solution to this problem that we don’t want to embrace because it is challenging, effortful, or uncomfortable.3
Or, the problem is unsolvable, and we’re avoiding accepting it.
Ignoring either of these realities sets us off on the quest, but the myths and stories persist for a reason. Not to entice us with promises of what’s to be found but to remind us of what happens if we chase it.
The myth of El Dorado is not about a city of gold. It’s about the dangers of chasing fantasies instead of embracing the truth.
Gilgamesh finds the plant, but it is stolen by a snake, and he must admit his efforts were wasted and embrace what he has in his finite time on earth.
Chinese emperors died for 2,000 years from mercury and arsenic poisoning, thinking they’d finally cracked the elixir of life.
We should recognize our desire for silver bullets as a cue to acknowledge where we might be falling short of doing what we know we need to do.
Find a way to push through the hard work, and you will be in a much better place than if you’d wasted 20 years running around the woods looking for a magic cup.
This post was written with some help from Lex.
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Yup, Mesopotamian Noah
This is probably where the “fountain of youth” myth comes from
It’s important to highlight the difference between simple and challenging. The opposite of simple is complex but not necessarily challenging. Running a marathon is simple; you mostly just run, but it’s very challenging. Weight loss is also very simple but challenging. Marketing tempts us by adding complexity to solve our problems instead of embracing simplicity, especially with universal problems.