#24 - What Mold Can Teach Us About Overcoming Hardship 🍄
How a Fungal Infection Transforms Wood to Gold
Welcome to another edition of Long Way Home🏡, where I discuss creativity, emotional intelligence, and happiness.
A special shoutout to the 2 new subscribers since last week’s issue on defence mechanisms, but I want to thank all 79 subscribers for letting me occupy a little space in your inbox each week. There are one million valuable uses of your time, and I’m honoured you think what I write makes it one million and one.
In this week's LWH🏡:
💫 - What Mold Can Teach Us About Overcoming Hardship by Vandan Jhaveri
Let’s get into this week’s essay.
What Mold Can Teach Us About Overcoming Hardship
High quality agarwood, a dark, fragrant, resinous wood used in incense, perfume, and small carvings, can sell for up to $100,000 per kilogram. The surprising story of where it comes from can teach us a lot about reframing traumatic experiences.
The aquilaria trees, native to Asian rainforests, produce a pale, odourless wood with light green flowers that grow in the shape of tiny umbrellas. Aquilaria trees, all 17 species, are generally quite lacklustre on their own.
In the wild, however, the aquilaria tree can be injured by grazing animals, lightning, or burrowing insects, exposing the inner heartwood of the tree to a myriad of fungi and bacteria. A specific fungus, Phialophora parasitica, can trigger the tree's immune system, resulting in the release of a stress-induced resin called aloe. These dark and sappy aloes turn the heartwood into agarwood after several years.
Since all species of aquilaria trees are designated as critically endangered, it's becoming more and more challenging to find infected trees to harvest naturally occurring agarwood. The number of aquilaria trees worldwide has declined 80% in the last 150 years. Estimates suggest of the remaining trees, about 2% are adequately infected, making naturally occurring agarwood exceptionally difficult to find.
However challenging, a skilled woodsman can spot which normal-looking trees are in fact infected with the mold on the inside. Once harvested, the agarwood undergoes a long, largely manual process of being removed from the surrounding healthy wood.
Agarwood is prized in the pharmaceutical and perfumery industries for its medicinal properties and distinct fragrance. The burning of agarwood is used in Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist ceremonies and its extract, oud, is a highly sought-after scent in the Middle east. Essential oils extracted from oud, in its purest form, can sell for up to $80,000 per litre.
A mold can transform a seemingly ordinary, worthless tree into one of the most expensive organic materials on the planet.
Most of us see our misfortune as a nuisance, robbing us of an orderly life. We might have been bullied in school, been raised in a house in which our parents are separated, or grew up with poor body image. We internalize these negative experiences as infections, irreversibly "damaging" us and making us unlovable. We feel like these experiences somehow make us ugly from the inside. We spend years, often decades, actively wishing these things never happened to us.
But without the mold, the aquilaria tree is aggressively unremarkable.
Just as the mold in the aquilaria trees need years to transform the wood into gold, we need time and space to process our trauma and hardship to see how those experiences might benefit us. Over time, we become more empathic, resourceful, and wise, equipping us to provide more value to loved ones through that newly acquired empathy, resourcefulness, and wisdom.
On the other side of our pain can lie a version of ourselves comparable to agarwood—precious, rare, and beautiful. Stoically, we can train ourselves to view setbacks with gratitude, providing us with the opportunity to grow, adapt, and learn. Each time we do this, we allow our heartwood to inch closer to pure agarwood, the most valuable kind.
It’s within our power to make it so when we’re burned, the sweet fragrance of self-awareness, confidence, and optimism floods our world and everybody in it.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, goes over some the key concepts from his latest book, Indistractable in a recent interview on Shane Parrish’s The Knowledge Podcast. The book seems popular among productivity-minded folks, so I was excited to see how Eyal added value in the hyper-crowded productivity space. Eyal's background certainly makes him an expert, and his frameworks for mastering internal triggers and analyzing which of our emotions inspire distraction are deeply helpful.
One of the biggest takeaways for me was when Eyal called to-do lists enemies of productivity. He mentioned we come up with these giant to-do lists and then tend to do the easiest or the most fun tasks, leaving the harder, more important tasks for later. Although obvious in retrospect, Eyal suggests scheduling tasks into our calendars and pledging to work on those tasks in the allotted time (not necessarily finishing).
I've been doing this all week and it's been transformative. Scheduling my time has given me much more structure and direction with my time each day. Now, if I haven't carved out time to complete the task in my calendar, it's not getting done. And it's calming knowing everything I need to do has its own dedicated time in my calendar.
🎥 - Demanded
When David Perell said Professor Tyler Cowen has been put on this earth to teach economics on Danny Miranda's podcast, I needed to investigate. Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a successful YouTube channel with his colleague Professor Alex Tabarrok where they explain economic fundamentals in engaging and practical ways. Over the past week, I've been bingeing his easily digestible YouTube videos and thinking about interesting applications of classic economic concepts (e.g., how might unintentional incentives be motivating undesirable behaviour in my household and at work?). I’m looking forward to getting through many more of their videos in the coming weeks.
Taylor Pearson, writer and thinker, discusses how different mediums have their preferred form factors. In music, songs shouldn't be more than four minutes. For podcasts, episodes shouldn't be longer than two hours. Books shouldn't be longer than 80,000 words.
If creators are seeking massive popularity, certain rules must be followed. Creators could certainly still be successful breaking these rules, but the type of mass adoption they may have in mind might not be possible.
Before creators complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated, it's important to understand why people may not be consuming our work. Following these form factors, even if slightly unnatural to begin with, can help us find consumers willing to provide feedback, which we can then incorporate into our work to improve it. Sending out weekly newsletters that take 30 minutes to read might not be the best way to build an audience.