Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser, today I'm with Visa Veerasamy, the Friendly Ambitious Nerd
Visa: Hi, thanks for having me.
Community and The Internet
Baiqu: First, what would you say to someone who wanted to know what your area of expertise was?
Visa: Right, so I change my answer to this all the time because there are so many different angles.
When I was a child the first thing I fell in love with were books. My parents brought me to the library and I fell in love. I'm like oh my God, every book is like a portal into a different universe and so much knowledge and wisdom. And I just wanted to participate in that, but I didn't know how. I didn't know any authors.
Then when I discovered the internet, I was about eight years old maybe, I was like wow, I can publish directly, I don't even need an editor. I thought of the internet as a mega library, a church to the light of human consciousness. It's all this stuff I can learn.
I've always had this reverence for the internet that I have come to realize that not everybody shares. I've always been interested in the social dynamics and social environment of the internet. So sometimes I think of myself as like a busker, a public entertainer, a community organiser, even a librarian, of my space on the net.
I think Carl Sagan had a quote that was something like, a book is proof that people can work magic. You squiggle a bunch of symbols on a bunch of printed paper and you hallucinate the images on the books, and you can inhabit the mind of someone who's long dead, and you can send messages to people who are not yet alive. That's just always been so exciting to me. I want to spend my life doing that. I'm not doing a very specific project about this one thing. I'm trying to do a little bit of everything. I'm trying to connect all kinds of disparate things.
But I would say more than that, the thing that I'm excited about is just playing with ideas. What is wisdom, and what is virtue, and how can we bring these things to everyday life and live more passionately, happily... All the good stuff.
I'm very passionate about the idea of public commons. I always think about kids who are smart, kind, who don't really have great families, whose parents might not be the best parents and they might not have good friends or whatever. They have a lot of potential, but they don't have the right environment. They will require nourishing supportive public commons, meaning the internet today.
I think about what I would have wanted as a kid. When I was like 10, I would have done anything to see someone like me as an adult now. Just some nerd making videos, going on interviews, talking about what he likes and then that kind of thing. And so I tried to fulfil that role for younger versions of myself and other people in the world. And yeah. I just am very passionate about libraries, basically. I think that's my most succinct thing.
I'm very passionate about libraries.
Baiqu: I enjoy the idea of you building this community around you, bringing people together, sharing knowledge, and having a playground for thought.
I remember having access to the internet for the first time, and coming out of Tibet, realising, this is such a huge opportunity. That you can just walk into a library and pick up anything, and you're allowed to read it. That sense of wonderment of just having access to everything is really phenomenal. I think it's easy to take that for granted if it's always been there, but being in Singapore, I guess you understand how it feels to run up against censorship. And I like what you said about kind of being a version of yourself that you would have liked to see as a kid. Little Visa would have been like this dude is so cool!
Visa: Yeah, exactly. A little bit of feedback like that from younger people is incredibly satisfying. It's made my life. I would say I was around my mid to late twenties when I started to get messages like that, it's priceless.
And I remember somebody pointed out once, if libraries didn't exist and we proposed that they should exist, everyone would be like, where are you going to make the money?
It's one of the few things that civilisation has gotten really right. That in every major city in the world, there are public libraries and kids and retirees and everyone can just go and you're not expected to purchase stuff.
And yeah, it feels like especially nowadays a lot of people are worried about community. They feel that religious sentiments have gone down. People stopped attending church, people don't have as many friends, people are feeling more stressed.
I mean, even before COVID people had this sense of some kind of decline. And I feel like the solution has to be reimagined local communities. And when I think about local, it doesn't necessarily need to be geographically. It can be the people who hang out in my mentions on Twitter. They use the phrase “this corner of Twitter,” which is funny because the people are distributed worldwide. But there's this sense of, I don't know, people who have similar values, I guess?
So a bunch of nerds like to hang out with a bunch of other nerds. It's just very wholesome, and it feels like a community. And yeah, I think that encouraging people to pursue their interests and find other people with similar interests is an important part of solving the loneliness problem and the malaise.
Baiqu: The languishing, right? So you are a self-identified nerd. You say you hang out with other nerds etc, so who is a “nerd” to you? Like what constitutes being a nerd, and is everyone a nerd about something?
Visa: So in my book, I define a nerd as someone who allows their behaviour to be directed by their curiosity. The more you allow your curiosity to direct your behaviour, the more of a nerd you are. Some people do it a little bit at the weekend, when they have free time. Some of us almost are pathological about it. Like, if we are curious about something we have to follow through on it and to the detriment of other things.
So I'm working on my second book. It's called Introspect, and it's like a guide for my younger self to figure out how to figure stuff out. I gave myself a deadline and I have already blown past the deadline.
While I was researching parts of it, I would find these wormholes. I'm like, okay, so this is a book about figuring yourself out, thinking, introspection, journaling and that kind of thing. And I'm like, Hmm, but you can't just talk about the life of the mind without mentioning the body, because all kinds of stuff like your physical fitness and health and sleep, all of those things affect your inner mental state.
So I'm like, okay, I've got to talk about the body a little bit. So I'm reading about the brain and I'm like, okay what's the history of humanity's concept of the brain. We had Aristotle who didn't even think that the brain had what we now know to be neural activity. He was like, the brain is a cooling system for the heart, something like that. And in the 1500s, there was an Italian guy who did some dissections and figured out some stuff. And then when I was writing that, I'm like, wait a second, Italian? Italy existed back then? Wasn't it a bunch of different city-states? I wonder, what's the history of Italian identity? And I have to find that out. I'm already two steps removed away from my original project. But I can't help but pursue this curiosity to where it goes.
So I have now designed my life around the assumption that I'm always going to be like that. I'm frequently going to get distracted and pursue my nerdy interests. So that's why I choose to be an author rather than like work a traditional job where if I have deadlines that other people are counting on, then they will suffer for my behaviour. That's my long-winded answer. The short answer is someone who's curious and allows the curiosity to direct them.
Baiqu: Leading to our second question, does being a nerd help you come across as being smart in a conversation?
Visa: I would say the most important variable in social discourse isn't the nerd part, it's the friendly part. You have to pay attention to the other person, their body language, their facial expressions. And you have to ask questions.
So I say something and then you laugh to yourself before you say something. I'm like, wait, why, why were you laughing? That kind of thing. People will be surprised that you were that observant because they might not have noticed themselves that they had laughed before they responded.
And if you ask questions in those moments, people will then perceive you as smart, just for asking why at that specific moment. And that's way more fulfilling in a conversation than like, oh, I know a lot of facts and I'm going to bombard you with them until you feel intimidated or impressed.
Like, yeah, you can do that. You can carry around this big basket of facts, and try to steer the conversation towards that, or maybe you're just so prolific and you know so much stuff that whatever the person is talking about, you have facts on them. But I would say it's cooler to have interesting questions and I think it's a skillset you can develop.
I think that's a thing that a lot of people don't seem to realize. You can be completely ignorant about a topic and you can still be a useful conversationalist in that conversation space.
And it helps to be articulate. It helps to be self-aware, and to explore it with a kind of earnest curiosity. When you have that kind of combination, then yeah, people will start to think 'Huh, that guy's pretty smart'.
Baiqu: So being smart is not so much about what you say, but how the other person perceives themselves within that conversation. Do you think people think you're smart after having spoken to you, and how do you think that affects your relationships with other people?
Visa: I mean, yeah, I do get that quite often.
I don't typically bring it up unless someone specifically asking me about smarts, but when I was a child I qualified for Singapore's gifted education program.
Once you get in, the messaging you receive is "You guys are the future of our nation. You are destined to be the next leaders." And that messed with my head for a while.
You know, you tell a kid that he's so much, whether it's smarter or whatever adjective you want to use, it's not easy to handle.
No one can prepare you for that. It's kind of overwhelming. It's kind of alien. You feel like an alien. You might feel like your self-worth is a function of your ability to score well on tests or be described as smart and stuff like that.
And I struggled with that for a while. I rebelled against that in my teenage years and I refuse to care about school. And I was playing music and hanging out with a bunch of delinquents.
What I can say is I've never had issues about not feeling smart. Like, I didn't go to university, but I don't feel any like university envy because I know I had already received this kind of arbitrary, maybe bullshit validation as a child.
I think, as far as we're talking about perceptions, I try to be kind. That's that's my goal. You know on your death bed the people who thought you were smart aren't necessarily going to care about you. It can be a hollow victory if you earn people's envy for being smart.
But if you have intelligence, you have processing power or whatever, you can use it to help and support other people. If you're just consistently supportive, nourishing, kind, and you use your intelligence to help people along then they will value you in a more fundamental way. So that's kind of what I've learned to focus on. And I think when I learned to make that switch that was very cathartic for me.
When I was a teenager, I think I had this mental model, this false dichotomy that either you're a thinking person or you're a feeling person, right? And I used to think that, if those are my only two options, I would want to be the cold, logical smart guy. The smart guy who was a bit of an asshole. I don't think I ever wanted to be cruel, but I'd be very intense in my arguments and the other person might be feeling shut out or something.
And I was just like, that's the way it is, man, like debate me, bro. And now I'm like, ah, that's so cringe. I've come to see that.
A couple of my friends told me things that really changed my perspective on this. They were like, if you're abrasive and hostile, even if you don't think you are, but if you have that kind of energy, then a lot of people are just not going to come to you with their thoughts and their feelings.
And so you're permanently shutting yourself off from that information. And so, yeah, if you can be kind, and if you can convey honestly, that you are a listener, the kind of person who people can come to, then they will share with you their thoughts and feelings, and that will make you smarter, because then you know more about people and you know more about how the world works, and you have better relationships.
So I genuinely try to not think about intelligence, but you know, that is kind of a privileged point of view, right? Like, I'm smart enough to not have to care about whether people think I'm smart. I'm blessed in that. I guess it's a curse at the same time, but for people who struggle and feel like they're not smart enough, they might feel insulted and you see it, it's a curse because, you know they wish they were smarter.
You know, I'm sure it's the same with a lot of things, right?
Like, I have friends who are phenomenally attractive and they have confided in me that being attractive kind of sucks sometimes because people have this stereotype of a supermodel, they project their assumptions of how you must be like on to you, and then you can either play along or you can not.
And there's just very little room to navigate. The challenge is to try and face each interaction with fresh eyes. I think that's very difficult, whether you're smiling or not smiling, whatever, it's like just being kind of fresh in your interactions. It's challenging, but very rewarding.
So that's what I try to focus on.
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Baiqu: Okay. So next question. A bit of a diversion. What would you recommend? And, um, I'm quite curious about this. I feel like you are someone who might order a lot of stuff online, but maybe that’s my bias coming through. But what was your best online purchase over the pandemic?
Visa: The boring answer is that I bought myself a new monitor.
So I have my laptop and two external monitors. I have one vertical monitor and previously I was using the second-hand monitor that I bought from some guy, like a really old CRT, thick and heavy and flickering.
And I lived with that for over a year, even though I could afford to buy a new monitor. I don't know why it's just, I guess it still works, so I don't need to buy a new one yet. But when I finally bought a new one, I'm like, wow. So crisp and clear. And I make a living as a writer, I'm online all day.
So it's like, I'm always sitting in front of my computer, my keyboard, my chair, my mouse. These are very important things that I'm touching all day. I'm trying to retrain myself to get better at spending money outside. I used to have an aversion to spending money in general.
I highly recommend that everybody get external monitors. If you're using one monitor it's a small space to work. It's real estate. It's very luxurious.
Baiqu: I discovered the same thing during the pandemic. Because I've been working on my laptop all year and I thought I was fine without one, and then I found out the magic of an external screen and I'm like, wow, I cannot go back now.
Visa: Yeah, I can't wait for the technology to get so seamless that you can have all kinds of stuff all over the place. Like, you can leave a calendar up here that has a clock on it, and then you can leave your email up here and it can read everything. And you have your workspace here. It's better than switching tabs.
Baiqu: Definitely. Okay. Next question. What would you recommend as the best solution to an existential crisis?
Visa: Ooh. Wow. Um, solution to an existential crisis.
I've had two big ones, I would say. One was when I was 17 and that was very existential. Like, oh one day I'm going to die, this life feels meaningless, blah, blah, blah. I worked through that.
And then the second one hit me in my mid-twenties. And that was less existential in the profound sense, not so much a meaning crisis, but more of a material crisis.
Like, I'm happily married. I love my wife. I had a great job with my colleagues that I enjoy. But just the mundanity of everyday life, it felt like a jail sentence with extra steps, and it was just like, wake up, go to work, come back.
I worked myself up to a very bad place with that. A bunch of that could have been avoided with some preventative measures along the way. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let me go back to the original thing, existential crisis. Um, I remember in the past, I used to think about things in terms of legacy, that you create work that lives on beyond you, you contribute to your society, and after you're gone, that lives on.
And then I learned about the heat death of the universe, which is a bit of an info hazard. But if you don't know, eventually all the stars will go out and entropy will increase to the point where the entire universe will kind of run down. Just that having that been made explicit for me, I was like, oh shit. Even if I worked really hard all my life to build a grand legacy, eventually, it will all be tracings in the sand, in the grand cosmic scheme of things.
And that was so upsetting for me. I was like, fuck. When I really confronted that, I think that it was very uncomfortable and very unsettling and painful.
I must have cried and been miserable for awhile. But eventually I came to the beach analogy. The universe is one big day at the beach and at the end of the day, it will all be washed away. And you can build sand castles, but don't build it thinking that this is going to last forever because it won't. You have to do it for the joy of doing it in the moment.
There's a bunch of different directions you can go with this. But to circle back to the question, what's the cure for an existential crisis: there isn't really a cure. You have the crisis and you learn that the beauty in what we do have, it's much more precious than we might feel. And what that does is it elevates every interaction to sublime.
Just being able to be here, every interaction we have with every other person, every friend, every family member, it's just so sacred and potent and precious. Because everything's going to end. This, the current moment, is the only moment, right?
That's half the picture. And I learned this from Alan Watts. So if all of that sounded very tedious and complicated and you don't really know what to think about it, I would recommend you go on YouTube and type in Alan Watts and just click on whatever lecture seems relevant to your interests.
Alan Watts saved me from my second depression, which was that life feels like a jail sentence. He just had this really cheeky, funny energy about him. Like he would be talking about despair and grief and the unknowability of beings and how we may never really know each other and ourselves and whatnot, but he's laughing. He has this cheeky uncle energy, and he sees it as a game. He sees it as like, we are all the universe playing peek-a-boo with itself, you know?
Cause we are the universe. Some people think of it as if we're from somewhere else, we are aliens who came here and we don't quite belong here. Like we are all here on probation and then we're gone. It's a very hostile kind of worldview. Whereas he's like, we are like flowers, we are part of the universe. Our consciousness is a function of the universe, just getting to know itself. There's something playful about that. Something kind of cheeky.
I'm not doing it justice, but I think a lot of it is in the body. I mean, 'existential crisis' sounds like it's cerebral. Oh, you're thinking that you're going to die. But a lot of it, I think, is tension in the gut and in the chest.
There's this line from Tuesdays with Morrie, he said something like, we are each waves in the ocean. And as the waves comes to the front, you're like, oh my God, we're going to crash on the shore. And that's death, right? Then you're not going to be around anymore. Oh God. Oh fuck. It's horrible. Which is a tragedy to bear. But you are not just the wave, if you are also the ocean. We are all the ocean.
And again some people, when they hear that, they'd be like, oh wow, that's true. But for others it's like, what the hell are you talking about? So you may have to try a lot of different approaches to find the metaphor or the frame that resonates with you.
But when you find it you realize that - another one of Alan Watts's quotes - it's like you were kicked off the precipice at birth and you've been falling all your life, but there's nothing to hold onto. And we cling onto whatever we are falling with as though it will give us a comfort, but it won't.
And so all you can do is kind of freefall and just be like, I am free falling. It's just crazy, but okay. When you release that tension, you can kind of surf the waves rather than be drowning underneath it.
That's also a quote from Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell says that the difference between the mystic and the schizophrenic in his language is that the mystic is able to surf the waves of consciousness and have a good time and be playing and enjoying it. Whereas the schizophrenic in Campbell's words is under the water and can't swim and is panicking and is drowning. So the challenge is to try to relate.
And the other thing is to try and help other people. So there's this quote from Carl Sagan, where he sau something like, the only thing we found that makes all of this emptiness bearable is each other. That we are not alone. It's like we are all walking each other home.
You know, I think there are all these little metaphors, Right? We are all these little humans. And we are all just getting by and we are all on a journey that starts in the middle and ends in the middle and we can never make sense of everything, but we can help each other out and we can try and laugh and try and have a good time.
And some people hearing that might not feel like it's enough if you're really in the depths of crisis. But in my experience, talking to lots of people about these things over the years, it's a vibe. It's not really the content of the words. It's just being in the presence of someone who is nurturing and supportive who can be like, yeah, it's okay. You know, it's all going to hell, but we'll try our best and we'll be here for each other.
And like, I will sit out at the apocalypse with you if necessary. Yeah. And then you smile and then you're like, it's okay.
Baiqu: So maybe a group skydiving exercise can be like a metaphor for what we're all going through. To release the tension.
I mean, once you accept the inevitability, when you release the fear and the anxiety, you can just kind of go with it.
Visa: Yeah. Oh, and then another thing I think, there are some things that feel like a metaphorical death. Immigration, leaving your childhood home, leaving your group of friends that you grew up with.
It's like the hero's journey, right? You leave the village and you go somewhere new and different, and that forces you to kind of redefine yourself. And in that process of redefining yourself, you shut the past, but the past is never truly gone. Right? You find a new version of yourself.
I think everyone who has been through some version of their personal hero's journey, whether it's getting a new job, breaking up with a longtime partner, when you go through one of these kind of crazy intense experiences that feels like death, that's a rehearsal. You go through it and you're like, oh, you know what? I thought it was gonna be calamitous and ruinous, but look at me now, I'm okay.
And yeah, with actual literal death, your consciousness may not persist, but there's that sense of I can go through the cycles or I can go through the end of something and be okay with that.
Baiqu: We're onto our last recommendation and I would like to ask you to recommend a piece of music, an article that stuck with you, and a daily habit that you practice that you think might be good for others to pick up.
Visa: Three different things. For music I think I will go with "The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place" by Explosions in the Sky. It's an instrumental band and it's a pretty short album. It's like 20 something minutes in total.
It's a very cleansing sort of listen. Like when you're on a train ride to somewhere or you're on a bus or you just kind of want to be alone for a while. And it just feels like a brain reset. It feels like someone's power washing my brain. It swells and gets intense and then it's gentle.
What was the next one? An article you've read: there's this article on deadspin.com that's called How Wile E. Coyote Explains The World. It's a pretty long article. It's about comedy, it's about animation, and it's about life. It's about expectations in reality. That's where I got the 'life is a joke' idea from. Why is the show funny? Right? Wile E. Coyote get screwed and it's tragic. We laugh at Wiley's failure. There's something there about learning to see the humor in a universe that can seem kind of uncaring and hostile.
And the last thing you asked for was a habit. The one line recommendation is just journal. Even if you just write down one sentence a day. I have one note every month, and at the end of each day, I'm like, what did I do? Who did I hang out with? Did I have any curiosities? Did I read a book? Watch YouTube? Did I just goof off all day? And at the end of every month you have like 30 lines. Information about yourself. And if you do that every month, which only takes like a minute a day, in a year, you have this very easy to read snapshot of your whole year.
Commemorating your own life and celebrating even the little wins, you know, you had a really nice dish at some place that you enjoy. That counts. It's part of your life, enjoy it, savor it. And when you do that it allows you to enjoy your life more. All these happy memories and proud moments, and also the bad stuff, right? Whatever crises and have difficult things happen, being able to review all of that, I think, makes life feel more immersive. It just feels more considered.
I feel like as I've gotten better at doing that, it also simultaneously feels like I've gotten better at living. Like I just make better decisions. Part of it is it's a little bit of anticipation, like, I should do interesting and fun things so that I have fun things to write about.
I can imagine some cases where somebody might take that too far, but I think a little bit of it is healthy. Like, this is your life, it's a special life with special occasions, right? So wear the dress, get the shoes, within reason of course, but don't postpone your life.
Like, live your life, enjoy it. There's a poem by Derek Walcott, Love After Love. It has this sense of really coming home to yourself and listening to yourself, being with yourself and really giving yourself the attention that you would give a friend that you love and admire, so that you can be your own best friend. And then when you have that kind of nourishing, supportive energy with yourself, it comes through, and other people around you will vibe with that. And then it can be a positive charge that gets distributed around, and it reinforces. It's just a nice life.
So I highly recommend that.
Baiqu: That's a good tip. You're right, so often at the end of the year, I feel like I don’t how I spent most of my time outside of a few big projects.
Now I have a bit of a selfish question. You have great hair, is there anything that you do to achieve this look or are you just lucky?
Visa: Yeah, I was born with it. I use a regular shampoo once in a while. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Baiqu: Well, thank you Visa for this very interesting conversation.
Visa: Thank you for having me.
This interview was originally conducted by voice. This is a transcript which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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