Thinking About Thinking - 2019

Stairway to Heaven

By Balaji Prasad

“Two things are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." ~ Albert Einstein

When you design something, there are many aspects to the design. A bridge needs to be strong enough to resist natural forces like the wind and earthquakes. It also needs to support the carrying capacity needed for people and vehicles to flow over it at desired speeds. It needs to look good too! We cannot design all of these disparate things in, one by one, into the bridge, because decisions about one aspect of the design will have an influence on other aspects. If you decide to make the bridge broader to allow more people to flow across faster, it may change structural aspects of the bridge that make it more vulnerable to earthquakes, or it could necessitate much more expensive material, which might make it commercially unviable. Everything needs to somehow come together at the same time. Click! When that happens, we get something that is much more than the parts of the design.

Designing the designer

And so it is, with human beings, too. We design ourselves over time. How well you design yourself determines what the overall design of “you" becomes, and how that design underpins the way in which you live and operate as you go through life.

“Design?? Do I get to design myself? Really? I thought this thing came assembled out of the box! So you're telling me now that I have to work on this thing to put it together so that it works reasonably well? And you're saying that there's no instruction manual for this thing? You've got to be kidding!"

It gets worse. Life doesn't bring all the parts with it out of the box. Things are scattered all over the place – a nut under this tree there, and a bolt of lightning from that cloud there. We have to scrounge and scavenge to find the missing pieces of the puzzle and put it together in some manner. Yes - in some manner. There is not one end state for the puzzle, unlike the jigsaw puzzles you can buy at a store that guarantee to yield the one solution that their creator intended them to make.

Can infinity be contained in a little box?

So in one sense, life is kind: it gives us lots of options and lots of states that can be attained. But in another sense, it is cruel: it gives us the ability to do something, but we won't ever know if that “something" is the best that can we do, or even one of the better alternatives available to us. “Be all that you can be" as the old Army slogan said, except you can never know in advance all that you can be.

The universe is large. Really large. And even if we draw a circle within it that boxes off most of it because it is not really accessible to us – for example, I am not counting Jupiter as one of the places I am likely to have access to in this lifetime – there are still too many things! Can I be an artist? I am sure that is possible. Can I learn the art of Japanese tree pruning? Why not!? And on and on. There are many more options that are available than we can fit into a lifetime. The tenure of life is a real constraint that we cannot overcome. If there were unlimited time, it would be possible to do a lot more, but alas, such is not the case. The second constraint comes from the limited space into which everything needs to fit – our heads. The cognitive processing capacity of human beings is amazing, but it pales into insignificance in the face of infinity. So we have a time constraint as well as a space constraint. The box is little but infinity is big. But there is one more obstacle that makes things harder. Much, much harder.

There is something larger than infinity!

In the parallel universe, it is possible to get freedom from space and time. We can live forever, happily ever after, whatever we do. Imagination is the ruling force in such a universe. And, imagination can create an infinity that is larger than the infinity of space-time. This is because imagination is not beholden to any laws of physics. It can build on whatever reality provides, and boldly go where no reality has gone before, much like the voyages of Star Trek's Enterprise.

The box that we live in generates a “reality" that is immensely larger than the reality that it is pretty loosely based off of. If we recognize that there is an infinity outside the box, we must realize that there is this much larger infinity that pervades the inside of the box.

If one is able to stare long and hard at the infinity inside, much like an optical illusion, you start to see some lines in the amorphousness that you didn't notice before. If you keep staring at it, a thing stands out in stark relief: one's “self".

Free the designer!

The sense of self is a pretty sticky sensation; it can be omnipresent, hanging like a dark cloud over everything that you do. If I can somehow slim this thing down, can I not reclaim some of the space inside the box that has been lost to this strange creature that almost feels like a parasite of sorts, sucking up all the resources inside and outside, without providing anything in return?

People speak about various kinds of addiction, but could the addiction to oneself be the mother of all addictions? Also, if I take a microscope to this thing that I call “myself", it may well be that the attributes of this persistent illusion were not even created originally by my own imagination, but by the collective imagination of many many people some who live today, and some who don't.

Maybe design isn't about designing at all! Maybe it is about “un-designing" – freeing myself from the rubble that I'm buried under, so that I might have a chance to live in the real universe, as opposed to the parallel one that I have gotten used to inhabiting? Imaginative people might call that “heaven". It may take some time though. It may be necessary to tear everything down, and build a stairway to that heaven.


Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or