Confessions of a lotus-eater

My attempts to avoid the perfect life

Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, washed up on a small island far from home. He sent his men to investigate the locals, but when they didn’t return Odysseus went to investigate himself.

He found his men in a happy stupor, so incredibly content that they completely forgot about returning home.

Odysseus’ men had eaten the lotus: a Bronze Age narcotic. Shrewd Odysseus recognized the peril at once, and tore his men away from the island as they wept.

It’s one of the most important scenes in Homer. A man with a single burning passion—returning home—is almost foiled. Not by some huge monster or some cunning foe, but by the simple pleasure of the lotus.

The story terrifies me. Ever since I read it in high school, I’ve been terrified of becoming a lotus eater, of resting for just a moment on some beautiful island, only to realize too late that I’ve spent my life eating lotus when I could’ve been sailing to Ithaca.

So when I came to San Francisco I did it with eyes wide open, looking everywhere for the lotus. My goal, trite as it sounds, was to start a company. Not the next Google, certainly, but something all my own. I wanted to add something to the world, but I was wary of the lotus.

I soon discovered that San Francisco is positively packed with lotus-eaters. It’s a place where ambitious people become waylayed by a million distractions, by small pleasures, by a type of amnesia. The hungry college graduate becomes a 9-5 zombie in a few short years.

I watched with horror as gleaming white buses carried soft pale bodies to temperature-controlled buildings. How many of those people had also dreamed of something else, something more ambitious?

I made a promise to myself: I would make it to Ithaca.

So when my company started offering weekly massages, I demurred. When delivery apps surged in popularity, I ate ramen at home. When my friends were living in real, adult apartments, I crammed myself into a friend’s living room. I would not allow myself to be pampered. The lotus lulls its victims into a blissful sleep, so I determined to keep myself awake and uncomfortable.

But it wasn’t easy avoiding the lotus. My employer, in addition to three hot meals a day, started offering “snack”—a fourth hot meal served mid-afternoon. Nice try, lotus. Of course sometimes snack was unavoidable: you haven’t lived until you’ve tried a fresh-baked green tea mochi cupcake, or dipped pão de queijo into lima bean dip.

But how about this act of heroism: instead of taking company-provided Ubers to and from work every day I rode my bike. This was no subtle act of defiance ladies and gentlemen—the streets of San Francisco are dangerous, littered with broken glass and double-parked cars.

But here, too, I made the occassional concession to the lotus. If it was raining, obviously, I couldn’t reasonably be expected to ride my bike. Or in the winter months when it’s a bit dark in the mornings, or when it got too cold, or when I was just a bit too tired. Let’s be reasonable here.

But the true test of my mettle came during a company offsite. Held in a famous San Francisco landmark, it lived up to all the stereotypes. Red neon lights cast an embryonic glow over the sea of eager employees, who were herded past free swag (Marmot jackets), past fancy coffee (Sightglass), past goji berry energy balls (read: lotus), past company propaganda and finally into a giant auditorium, greeted by company executives projected onto four billboard-sized screens.

“What an incredible year,” said one executive. “We’ve accomplished so much, so quickly. It’s a testament to the brilliant, difficult work done by everyone in this room.”

Deafening applause erupted from all around me. I sipped company-branded cold-brew and looked around. Look at these lotus-eaters, I thought. How sad.

“I continue to be surprised by the incredible talent in this room; to be amazed by what you’re all capable of. And yet the biggest opportunity lies ahead of us. We can change the world. I’m being serious: we can change the world.”

We’ve finally come to the most cunning trick in the lotus’s arsenal. All the delicious food and drink, the convenience, the comfort, the soft edges—these are mere foreplay, an overture.

Because the best lotus doesn’t just satisfy those lower, reptilian needs—it satisfies the highest strata of Maslov’s hierarchy. This lotus whispers in our ear, “you’re doing great, you’re amazing, you’re loved, you’re respected.”

A series of company product launches started flashing on the big screen. They started slow at first, slow enough that people clapped in between the names. But then they picked up speed, and the clapping became low and constant. The products came faster and faster, and as they did the clapping got louder, and suddenly everyone was on their feet.

The crowd started to cheer, to yell. Hands were raised towards the firmament and suddenly all the screens exploded with animated fireworks, fading to reveal hundreds of product names in small print, showered with digital confetti. The crowd gave one last orgasmic shudder before falling back into their seats.

I sat gasping in my chair, heart pounding. Partially it was the excitement about the product launches. And partially it was the realization that I was excited about these launches, that this ecstatic experience stroked my ego, it comforted me, it told me that I was exactly where I should be, that I just needed to keep following the lighted signs and everything would turn out all right.

But in the back of my mind I knew the morbid truth: I was in the throes of a lotus dream.

This is the genius of the lotus: its action is so slow, so subtle, that you slip into its euphoric grasp without even realizing it. You imagine that you are working hard, that you are rowing furiously toward Ithaca, when suddenly you awake to find yourself sprawled on the sunny shores of lotus-eater island.

How did I wind up in that auditorium? What happened to starting a company? To building something all my own?

Well I needed experience of course. I needed to study the craft, to work at a large and successful startup. I needed to befriend the right people. But somewhere I took a wrong turn, I sampled some lotus, and suddenly I found myself in that auditorium, lotus raining from ceiling.

I can hear you, dear reader, muttering to yourself. You think I’m some entitled brat, some tone-deaf pampered prick looking for some way to complain about my incredible good fortune.

Perhaps. Were Odysseus’ men fortunate? After years of horrible bloody battle, after years of sailing in circles around the Mediterranean, these men had found paradise. They wanted not for food and drink, for safety and comfort. And yet we know this island is a prison, a beautiful gilded cage.

Maybe I have invented the lotus. Maybe I’ve already reached Ithaca, and the pleasures I’ve been mocking are in fact the reward for reaching my goals. Maybe it’s natural—healthy, even—for our goals to change over time. Maybe I should stop whining and just enjoy myself.

But isn’t that what a lotus-eater would say?