Kevin Kelly had a birthday party earlier this month. It featured a giant bubble-maker, a magic show, an ice cream truck, a toy train demonstration, and a guy who made balloon hats. Kelly, who turned not 6 but 71, invited guests such as Matt Mullenweg, Hugh Howey, Stewart Brand, and Jaron Lanier. The second-grade vibe was unintentional, Kelly says—“I was just trying to do things I thought were fun, and a stripper does not interest me”—but it was very Kelly, who’s made a career and a life of applying a childlike openness to complicated issues of science, technology, and culture. In an age where pervasive AI looms, it’s an attitude that could benefit us all.
His new book, Excellent Advice for Living, tries to boil down what he’s learned over a lifetime into a series of several hundred aphorisms. Here’s one: “Don’t be the best. Be the only.” He began compiling these a few years ago to share with his kids, now young adults. It’s like Handy Household Hints from Heloise meets the Dalai Lama. The book includes exhortations to virtue, practical survival tips, and rephrasings of well-worn chestnuts, such as “This is true: It’s hard to cheat an honest person.” (W.C. Fields, your pocket has been picked!)
As I raced through his book, the accumulation of mind-grenade bonbons, however pithy and profound, got a bit overbearing. I told Kelly it reminded me of pompous Polonius’ “Neither a borrower or lender be” speech in Hamlet. “I don’t know who that is,” Kelly says when I bring this up. He does admit that binging on his aphorisms in one session could be overkill. “I think that their native habitat is a little tweet online,” he says. Nonetheless, consuming his almanac in one gulp reveals a set of themes to Kelly’s thought process. Favor quality of life over money. Be kind. Be practical. Don’t let anyone stop you from being yourself. And always cut away from yourself when using a knife.
In any case, the book is pure Kelly, who lifehacking guru Tim Ferris once said might be “the most interesting man in the world.” Kelly’s a podcast star (appearing on 120 pods this year alone), an AI oracle, and a digital artist who posted a picture a day for a year. He’s the ultimate early adopter—computer conferencing in the early 1980s, donning a VR headset in 1989, extolling AI for decades. After dropping out of college in his first year, he and his camera began a decades-long on-and-off tour of unseen Asia, which he self-published last year in a three-volume, 30-pound photo book with 9,000 images. (It sold out on Kickstarter.) His This American Life episode—about finding Jesus in Jerusalem and expecting to die in six months—is a classic. He is a cult figure in China. Until the pandemic, he made the bulk of his income from paid appearances there, accompanied by bodyguards to police the hour-long selfie lines that formed after his talks.
He’s also—brace yourself for the Godzilla of disclosures—a friend, who’s edited me, given me some of my best story ideas, and came up with the idea of a Hackers Conference to celebrate my first book. Oh, and he’s the founding executive editor of Startup and continues to contribute as its official Senior Maverick. Thanks, Kevin!
Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.