Browser Interviews: Chris Williamson on how Love Island cured his existential crisis
Every week at the Browser we conduct edifying interviews with interesting figures. Today we speak to Chris Williamson, who's the host of the Modern Wisdom podcast. For more, see the rest of our Browser Interviews.
Baiqu: So what is Modern Wisdom? Do you feel like there's a lot of wisdom dispensed through your channel? Have you been gaining wisdom?
Ongoing through "manopause" and searching for answers
Chris: I couldn't say that. Definitely not by me, maybe by some of the guests. The challenge that I found was that there's no instruction manual that comes with life. and I went through a "manopause" toward the end of my twenties, where I thought I was this guy who was about partying and status and girls and money and stuff like that. Then I realised I wasn't, and I thought, I don't know how to actually get from where I am to where I want to be.
So the podcast is a little bit of a retrospective look at each of the different steps, and it's kind of like a learn with me story adventure of here's what I'm trying to work through this week. And I get someone like John Peterson or Robert Greene, or James Clear, or Aubrey Marcus, or Seth Godin, or a porn star, or a philosopher, or a guy who's trying to engineer humans to get to the nearest star system.
I bring them on and ask them something and then maybe I take something away from it and... maybe I get a little bit better. And then the audience hopefully does too. So yeah, I think a lot of the answers that we're looking for in the modern world, exist in tradition already, they are already out there. There's been a lot of humans and our programming isn't that different from each other. So you can probably find the answer to the question that you're looking for already out there. It's just a case of trying to find the right person and ask the right questions.
Baiqu: I feel like a lot of the things that I personally am trying to practise now, I've been told when I was five years old. They're very simple nuggets of wisdom, but to know it rationally and to feel it in your heart, then integrate it into your perspective of the world, is totally different.
Chris: What are some examples of that? Have you got anything that comes to mind?
Baiqu: I mean, I'm from Tibet originally and Tibetans are mostly Buddhist. So my mom and my grandma would always say you have to learn to focus on what is happening now. Constantly regretting things in the past, or being anxious about the future, is not going to get you anywhere. These are the things that you grow up with as a kid and you think, sure, easy enough. Then you get older and you realise okay that makes a lot of sense, but how do I actually do that on a day-to-day basis?
You have interviewed such a varied group of people with all of these life stories and I wonder, what would you recommend if someone wanted to come across as being smart or wise in a conversation?
How to come across as smart or wise in a conversation
Chris: It's an interesting question because that implies that you're not (smart). Like somebody's goal within a conversation should be to come across as they are. Now you want to polish that and come across in the best way that you can, but you don't want to lie.
I mean, I found this when I first started, I felt like I had to speak at the level that these professors, PhDs, and doctors were talking at... but you don't. I don't think that people need to try and be intelligent in their conversations.
That being said, using the correct number of words, being precise with your speech, is a piece of advice from Jordan Peterson. And it's the best synthesis of how to speak properly I think in a conversation: precision. To use the right number of words, the most appropriate word for each sentiment that you need, delivered at a cadence that is understandable, that's nice and rigorous and finishes when it needs to finish.
Another thing that people can do is learn to be comfortable with silence. So for a long time, I felt like on a podcast, if there were moments of silence when I was talking or when the guests were thinking, maybe that meant I wasn't interesting enough or smart enough, or that the guests didn't like me. And you realise over time that actually that's totally fine, you can just sit with the silence, especially if it's a conversation about something that's meaningful. The best comedians aren't the ones that constantly tell jokes. They tell a joke and they let it land, and that's kind of the same I think with conversations, you can just allow yourself to sit with silence.
So yeah two really good recommendations for better speaking. I think to be precise with the words that you use and how we put them across and learn to be comfortable with silence.
Baiqu: Yes I think people have the tendency to want to use these big words because it makes them sound smart, but actually if a simpler word would do, that's then the better option, because more people will understand what you're trying to say.
On lockdown pandemic purchasing
Baiqu: During the pandemic, first of all, how was it for you? Then what was your best Amazon / online purchase during the time of lockdown?
Chris: That's a good one. So pandemic's bad for a lot of people, but pretty good for podcasts when everyone's spending more time on their phones and on their computers and they have less of a commute to work, they have fewer distractions. I run a club night business as well - I run one of the biggest events companies in the UK. Pandemics aren't fantastic for nightlife. So we've only really recently just got started again with that, it's nice to get back into it.
Amazon purchase. God, I ordered a lot of stuff off Amazon over the last 18 months. Jeff Bezos has retired exclusively I think off the back of what I've purchased. Well one of them's a chilly pad, which is a liquid-cooled mattress topper. So you can choose the temperature of your bed, specifically, and you can program it throughout the night to change to different temperatures.
I can see that you're laughing, but generally, I run quite hot, in the nicest way possible. I get warm, especially in summer. So this thing has saved my life. It's so good. Don't need to have a fan blowing air into my face all night. No one in the UK has air conditioning - that doesn't exist. So liquid-cooled mattress topper, that was good. But it's £800, so that was quite expensive.
A better or a cheaper purchase... I'm just looking around my desk at some of the mad stuff that I've bought over the last couple of months. I bought a really good electric toothbrush. Again, this is just showing my age here, 33 years old, and I get excited about an electric toothbrush. But I would say liquid-cooled mattress topper, and a Phillips Diamond Sonicare. Those would be two of the best.
Baiqu: I have that toothbrush, it's so good.
Chris: It's outstanding. I'm glad that we are kindred spirits of the toothbrush gang.
Baiqu: It's so good. The oscillation is amazing.
Comparing running club nights and podcasts
Okay. So you run a club night and you have your podcast. Are there any similarities?
Chris: Oh God. Talking to people and being able to deal with different sorts of individuals and their motivations and what they want to get across. At a high level, you have to keep your finger on the pulse of trends. Who's coming up, who's going down. What's cool. What's not. What are the talking topics that people should be interested in? Who are the DJs that are coming up? These are all kind of equivalencies across both of them.
But also it's super different. The club night industry is so fickle and back bitey, it's basically like the wild west. So there's no contracts, everything's just a handshake deal between the promoter and the venue. So you see businesses that are worth a hundred thousand pounds a year that will be amazing one week and three weeks later, literally won't exist because somebody has come in and swooped and taken the deal off them, and the manager of the venues decided that he's going to change it around. So it's like a baptism of fire.
Being adversarial and stress testing other people's ideas
Here is one interesting dissimilarity: in podcasting you need to be skeptical and critical and adversarial sometimes with the guest, even if you don't have anything to be adversarial about. So one of the things that the internet really likes is when people stress test other people's ideas. They like the guests to show that they are a good faith participant by pushing back against something that the guests says, and not just letting them talk all over them. And you can obviously ramp that right up in terms of how violent you want to be with your wording. So it's a little bit performative. You do it to enhance the conversation and to create a bit of spark between you and the guest, but also you do it as a show to the audience that you're acting in good faith.
But in club nights, it's the complete opposite because what I want to do is get people away from the front door, which is where I stand, making sure that people go in nicely. I want to get them away from me and into the club as fast as possible. So if somebody comes out with an issue, I'll just do like agreeableness Brazilian jujitsu in a desperate attempt to try and sort of contort them into a situation where they're happy with what's happened, and then turn them around and send them back inside the club.
Baiqu: That's a very coherent breakdown and analysis of the internet's desires and what they want to see from their hosts.
On building community as a road for self-actualisation
Baiqu: So given your very recent guest, psychologist Clay Routledge, what's a good cure for an existential crisis?
Chris: I went on Love Island and that worked for me. So I had a borderline existential crisis on Love Island and that worked. I don't know, the research is really fascinating and almost all of it points to social connections. It would seem Clay's work essentially talks about transcending the self, doing things in service of others, and it kind of makes sense. It surprises me sometimes just how socially we're built. The 21st century has taught a lot of us to be individualistic, meritocratic, self-powered agents with sovereignty and upward mobility that can do whatever they want, but you need the community.
Like if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together type thing. The more that I learn about it, the more that I realise you really can't: life's too difficult to make it on your own. It genuinely is. And trying to contribute to something which is higher than yourself. Honestly, I think that most people's existential crises could be fixed by doing charity work once a week, or doing something, which is not for yourself, which is purely in service of other people.
And I guess I've seen echoes of this in my own life as well, because being a party boy who was trying to achieve status and prestige and all that stuff for a long time, I never really felt existentially fulfilled from getting people drunk. You know, even if it was 4,000 people on Halloween night or coming into one of my events, it never really felt like I was transcending the suffering of day-to-day existence and making other people's lives better.
But I do feel that with some of the other things that I've done, the podcast, I genuinely think it makes the world a better place. And I know that people actually care. And I'm proud of what I've done with that. So if you don't have something like that in your life, then that's the first place to look. What can I contribute to that's going to make me feel like I really am transcending myself.
On Love Island curing an existential crisis
Baiqu: With Love Island, was that a part of your pursuit of this inner narrative that you had about yourself? Partying, getting women, fame, money, all that kind of stuff.
Chris: No it was a philosophy retreat. I was just going on to spend all of my time... No yeah of course it was just the Champions League or the World Cup final of being a party boy. I'd managed to make it there, but then I spent some time there and thought, ah, this isn't quite me, this isn't who I thought I was. I'm around people who genuinely are these hyper-extroverted, super outgoing party boys and party girls, and I'm not one of them.
So that's a problem, and the problem needs some self inquiry to work out a solution. And that's, I guess, still six years later, the path that I'm on. So not everyone goes on Love Island to be catapulted toward a life of virtue. But I think it definitely helped me at least a little bit.
Baiqu: It's interesting that you went to a place where you thought you would meet other people who are like you, and then the reflection that you got back made you realise it's not you. You said you're 33, so you were in your late twenties then, 27, when you went?
Would you go on?
Actually, that's the other question I was going to ask you is, I'm doing this interview series, because like you said, I get to talk to really interesting people.
Chris: Are you saying there aren't any interesting people on Love Island?.
Baiqu: I see what you're doing here.
Comparing having his own platform to being on Love Island
No, my point was that the only reason I'm on camera now is that it's a part of the necessary thing for me to do in order to engage with really interesting people and I can call it a job, and that's amazing. But being on camera in and of itself is just not something that I think is a big part of what I want. And one of the questions I had for you is, being on TV versus putting your own face out there through your channel, how does that feel? Do you feel like you have more sense of ownership and control over how you're presented and how you're perceived? Was it weird for you to be back on camera again after being on TV?
Chris: Yes, you're right. That it's a very different sort of mechanism. It was kind of like, is it Mockingjay, that series of films, where there was a lottery. It's kind of like that.
Each area of the country submits a champion and then the champion goes forth and has sex on national TV or does whatever they do to win. And everybody knows the subtext of everyone that's been on reality TV and made their platform from it, is, this could have been anybody else. That there's nothing inherently special about me. I just got picked in the right place at the right time.
That's not to say to people that go on reality TV aren't entertaining, and that is a value in itself. But Tommy Fury, who's Tyson Fury's younger brother had trained for over a decade as an amateur boxer, drilling thousands of hours in the gym, and he got famous for being a guy in a pair of swim shorts on TV. He didn't get famous for the thing that he'd worked thousands of hours at. So what does that tell young people about success? It tells them that working hard and long at one pursuit, isn't the route to success. I don't think culturally, that's a fantastic signal to give to young people.
So pivoting back on camera but to not have somebody asking, "sorry can you talk about that girl that you mugged off last night bruv." That didn't entertain me too much. Getting to have conversations about whatever I wanted was nice and... it feels different. You work so hard and the growth of doing this stuff for most people is very slow. On average, it takes about a thousand videos to reach a a hundred thousand subs on YouTube I think. Which means that anybody that's got to that stage really has had to do the hard work. They have had to grind for hours and hours, and I think that we can all respect that level of input.
On meaningfully contributing to people's lives while shirtless
Baiqu: You said that you're very proud of what you've built here and that that's kind of been an antidote to the initial existential crisis that you felt coming off the show. Have you had feedback from people in particular that soothed that sense of fulfilment and purpose?
Chris: There's been hundreds and hundreds of messages from people on the internet, probably thousands now over the last three and a half years, which is amazing. But it's when you meet people in the real world, that's when it gets really, really crazy.
So I was at a fitness exposition a couple of years ago, Body Power in Birmingham, and I'm walking around with my top off on a stand for a friend's clothing company, training, just having a good time, and drinking caffeinated drinks. And this guy comes up to me and he says, "Hey man, can we just have a quick chat? I'm a huge fan of the podcast." So he takes me over to one side and he's like, "look, dude, my dad died."
I'm thinking, okay this is going to take a left turn. He continues: "My dad died not long ago, and I realised that I hadn't been dealing with his death very well. I had closed myself off to my wife. I'd really started to disintegrate my relationship with my young daughter who was just about to go to school. I was dedicating myself to things that weren't making me feel fulfilled and I realised all of this had happened because I hadn't really dealt with the pain of dad leaving. I was losing my marriage, I was losing my relationship with my daughter, I was losing my relationship with my dead dad. I'd never got closure from that. And some episodes..."
It wasn't me, it wasn't something I'd said. It was like a conversation I'd had with some guests who'd just sparked something in him. And he was getting quite emotional while I was talking to him. I'm like, I'm supposed to be this super macho guy walking around with my top off at this fitness exposition while I'm desperately trying to hold back the tears as this dude tells me about his dad, that's passed away. Just this beautiful story where he said: "look it really, really helped. You know, you've put me on a path, me and the wife are really good now. Me and my daughter have never been so connected, and I've realised I've had to do this. I've done yoga and some mindfulness practices and I really feel like I'm going to become the sort of guy that my dad would be proud of."
I am listening to him and pretending that I'm not crying. Then went back to the store and need have to sit down. Seeing things in real life like that is insane, especially since... whose work ever contributes to people's lives like that? No one's work ever contributes to people's lives in that sort of a way, you just end up with bullshit jobs for the most part. When you do something that genuinely connects, it's like taking a drink of water without knowing that you're thirsty. That was what it felt like. It sort of quenched something that you didn't know was there.
Baiqu: That's an amazing story.
Masculinity and the messages men grow up with
You know, within the context of gender equality and feminism there is this idea of masculinity. Throughout this conversation, we've talked about you having had a certain image of yourself and maybe other people still having that image of you. And the story that you just told about being this masculine guy at a fitness expo with your shirt off comforting a man made me wonder... How has your relationship with masculinity changed through this experience of going on the show, coming off the show, reconfiguring who you are. Has it shifted?
Chris: I'd definitely say that my relationship with masculinity shifted over the last six years, yes. As a young guy who maybe doesn't have any role models that you can look up to. You don't have anyone that's an archetype for you to follow in their footsteps, so you kind of just absorb what you can find around you. You can take some from TV, you take some from rap music, and you take some from your local community or whatever it might be.
As a young guy, working class background, going to a university in the Northeast of the UK, there was only one way it was going to go. It was going to be party culture: getting girls, making money, having status and climbing the hierarchy. Over time I've realised that those things in themselves are actually born out of quite strong evolutionary drivers that I think make a lot of sense. Women, as far as I can see, are fundamentally attracted to status, education, resources, and looks. Those would be the four buckets typically that women would find attractive.
But the route that you go through in order to get those can be hacked. Let's take status, right? Status should be bestowed on people for having done something that's genuinely meaningful to them. They've worked very hard at something that they care about, and that's why they've been given status. As opposed to just trying to get status for status's sake because it's an easy hack to get girls into bed... and that goes back to the Love Island thing.
Money as well. Money is a representation of work that you have done, presumably because you care about the work and the money has come along for the ride, as opposed to trying to get money because you think that more resources are going to get you more women.
So it kind of flipped everything on its head to wonder why I wanted this thing. Being well-known, does it even validate you? You think it validates you, but you feel no more validated now at 27, than you did at 17. So what are you doing there? And then you have one conversation with a guy that makes you cry at a fitness expo and you think to yourself, okay, that's something different.
I do think that generally at the moment, there is a little bit of a crisis of masculinity because we're kind of in an uncanny valley where a lot of the toxic elements of masculinity—things that were brought up by the Me Too movement—have highlighted men who weaponise status in order to get sexual access or to climb a totem pole in a way that was unethical or un-virtuous. But I don't think that we've given men a sufficiently robust new set of archetypes and structures for them to follow, because presuming that men are going to take their masculinity cues from women is just not going to happen.
Being nuanced about re-configuring masculinity
Here's a good example. So, male depression gets treated the same way as female depression. For the most part, female depression is treated by making women feel like they belong—that they have a place and are loved. If you treat men like that, they're not really going to try and get out of depression. Men want a purpose and the ability to achieve it.
A good example of this is in World War II, there were these catatonic patients in psychiatric wards. They'd been there for years, some of them there for decades, and they'd been completely comatose on the beds, no one could get them up. They were basically vegetables that were being cared for. Bombs started dropping in London. These patients that had been catatonic for years got up and started driving ambulances and fire trucks. And the reason that they did that is because they had a purpose and the ability to achieve it.
So men and masculinity at the moment have dispensed with many of the things that were really toxic, but I do think that some of the baby's been thrown out with the bathwater. We need to think about what's next. What's a holistic masculine view for men? For instance Gillette commercials: they've done a 360 degree turn from a few years ago, so they're now showing men firefighters shaving their beards before going off to save kittens from trees and stuff. But that didn't resonate because fundamentally men don't want to do that. They don't want to have that sort of existence. That being said, there are elements of masculinity that also weren't very positive for society.
So how can we be more nuanced with trying to sort of tear apart the bits that we don't want to keep, but also understanding the fact that masculinity in its form has uses in society. Like if there's a war, if there's something that needs doing, men are quite useful tools for that. And if you tell them that a lot of their capacities, their desires for growth, that desires to be conscientious and achieve things, that they're toxic.
What are your thoughts given the fact that you come from a feminist background?
Baiqu: I'm a feminist because I believe in equality. I think everybody should be a feminist because the underside of feminism is a healthy emotional environment for all genders.
What are women are attracted to in men?
Baiqu: Few things that you said. First one, is you named like four things that you think through your experience, you find that women are attracted to. Do you have a setlist for men? Like what do you feel like men are typically attracted to in a woman?
Chris: Okay. Men typically signal off of youth and fertility. Fertility is manifested in looks. So those would be the two key drivers for men. Now don't get me wrong. We can step into our own programming and we do a lot at the time, but as a good example, and I'll use you as an example. Have you ever dated a man that's shorter than you?
Baiqu: I'm pretty short, so that has not happened yet.
Chris: Okay. So as far as I can see with men, you have four buckets and at least three of them need to be filled higher than the woman's in order for the woman to be fundamentally attracted to the man. So the man needs to be more educated, higher status, richer or taller. You can date a rich, smart, well-known short man, or you can repurpose those in any way. But if you only have two of them, if you have a short man who's stupid, but happens to be rich and high status that relationship's going to struggle.
Conversely for men, with women, I would say that it's youth and fertility. On average. I think that the marriage gap in age is between three and four years at the moment. But if you look at the research around what men say their ideal ages, it's quite an uncomfortable read because as men's age increases from 21 to 55... their primary attractive age is a 21 year old female. That's an uncomfortable insight for us to realise, and I don't really know as a society, what we're supposed to do with that because that's just not the way that we're going to be able to get healthy relationships to work.
Baiqu: It's hard to say what part of it is evolutionary and what part of it is upbringing and socialisation.
When you do surveys and you ask someone who they're attracted to in terms of who do you want to go to bed with, it's a very different question to who can you build a life with? Do you want to build a life with someone? What does that look like? What is a healthy relationship? And that brings up, I guess, a lot of the ways that we see masculinity and femininity assigned to genders. Because these two things are actually separate in many ways, a woman can hold both, as can men. And I think having the space and the knowledge and creating habits where we bring up kids, where we talk to men and women, without the expectations of traditional heterosexual normative gender roles is a really big part of how we move forward.
When it comes to status, for example, what does status mean right? Status, power, equates typically to money, your standing in society, how you look, your height, your build, et cetera. But I think if we are to divorce that from gender roles and ideas of traditional masculinity and femininity. We just want someone who gets us. And we want someone who we think can teach us something, who can make us better in some way. And that in itself creates status and that status is subjective from person to person.
Chris: I would agree that one of the most attractive traits that any mate can have is that you admire them. If you admire the person that you're with, no matter whether you're a man or a woman, it's such a compelling, attractive force. Because not only presumably do you fancy this person—find them physically attractive—and they hopefully have some of the values that you like, your schedules align, you speak the same language... you also think you actually learn something from this person. They genuinely care about me, and they might be able to make my life better. That's a powerful way to start a relationship.
Baiqu: And what you said about depression. I'm not in agreement with your diagnosis. Earlier what we were saying about having an existential crisis, I believe everybody wants to have a sense of purpose, the feeling that I am here for a reason that my existence is meaningful because I have to drive the ambulance. I think a sense of belonging is hugely important, male or female. Outside of when you go up to someone on the street and say, "Hey, would you rather do him or him, right?"
Onto our last question. Can you recommend one piece of music, an article that stuck with you, and a daily habit that you practice?
Chris: So an article that stuck with me is one that you guys put out on The Browser. I want to say two and a bit years ago, and it was about the hit to kill phenomenon in China. Have you heard of this?
Baiqu: I haven't read the article, but I do know that phenomenon.
Chris: Basically, if you hit somebody in a car in China and you don't kill them, you're forced to pay their medical expenses for the remainder of their life. So what you find are these very bizarre situations where somebody will accidentally hit a pedestrian and then stop and turn around to see if they're dead. And if they're not, they'll drive back over them again, to make sure that they're dead. Because to kill someone I think is maybe about half a million pounds or dollars equivalent, but to keep them alive for the rest of their life, with all of the health support that they need is many millions. So it's literally cheaper to kill someone than it is to injure them. Which is obviously a perverse incentive, but that one really stuck with me. I've used that story tons.
A piece of music. So I was just listening to Periphery. They're kind of like metal, but they're very beautiful the way that they piece their songs together and there's a song called It's Only Smiles. It's just this gorgeous six minute long guitar. The vocals are amazing in it. It just makes me happy. It's a very, very happy piece of music.
One daily habit. So, on a morning, most people have a coffee when they get up. But your adenosine system, which is the system that caffeine act on is an active for usually around about the first 90 minutes of the day. So what you're trying to do is bind to the adenosine receptors so that tiredness doesn't set in, but you're a adenosine system isn't going, your adrenal system is. So rather than having a coffee, first thing in the morning, what's much better to do is to have salt and lemon in water.
So this could just be table salt, but there are companies that do specific salts for this purpose—rehydration, potassium, magnesium and sodium mixes. Having that in the morning instead of your morning coffee will mean that you don't have to have as much caffeine. When you do have your first coffee, 90 minutes to two hours into your day, you'll genuinely feel it, and it will improve the quality of your sleep. Plus, you'll get this adrenal kick from the salt.
So that is something I've done for maybe about 18 months now. And then I heard Andrew Huberman, the big-time researcher from Stanford, on his podcast the other day, literally, verbatim word for word said some bro-science that I've been shilling for 18 months, telling everyone. I finally felt good, at least I didn't get that bit wrong. So yeah, that's it.
Baiqu: Thank you. I drink lemon water every morning, but I don't add salt to it. So now that I know it's not just bro-science, I think I'll give it a go.
Chris: It's legit science.
Chris Williamson on Twitter
Chilly Pad liquid cooled mattress topper
Clay Routledge on the Modern Wisdom podcast
Newcastle promoter Chris Williamson feeling positive after Love Island exit
Research around what men say their ideal age in women is
The hit to kill phenomenon in China
It's Only Smiles by Periphery
Looking to hear more from interesting people? See our other Browser Interviews which include conversations with three Stanford professors on where Big Tech went wrong, Slime Mold Time Mold on the obesity epidemic, and Ada Palmer on Machiavelli's laundry.
Not yet a subscriber? Every day, The Browser Newsletter sends you five fascinating pieces of writing to surprise and delight you, each one hand-picked and beautifully capsuled by our editors Caroline Crampton and Robert Cottrell. In a world consumed by bots, noise and breaking-news, The Browser gives you carefully-curated writing of lasting value.
Get our recommendations for the five best articles every day: