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The 1,000 Day Molt
How to Make Decisions Like an Insect
The last few weeks have been a rare hibernation for me. I fell out of my good habits and fell into old addictions. The shadow took over, my imagination dried, and I became distant with the world. Like a little homunculus1 sitting on a couch in the back of my skull, I looked out the windows of my eyes, operating my limbs through mechanical levers.
What’s going on? I’m approaching an obscure but high-pressure milestone: I’m about to turn 12,000 days old.
This sounds like an arbitrary unit of time, but it represents a blood-oath I made with a former self. I measure my life, not in years, but in 1,000 day cycles. It’s a deadline for making the big decisions I’ve let lurk.2
If you commit to this strange interval, it ushers in waves of transformation, whether you’re ready or not. It triggers a psychological ‘molt’ — a sudden shedding of an exoskeleton. This happens to insects routinely. It’s what enables them to grow.
The human psyche is lodged inside the head of a mammal, but it actually functions like a complex insect.3 It has the capacity to shed and regenerate, over and over. The difference? We cling to stability. While insects molt on nature’s clock, we tend to freeze our own evolution with the fear of confrontation.
Molting is the messy avenue to growth. If we can weather the psychic upheaval, we can keep evolving upward. How do we approach it?
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The weird world of molting
In the depths of an Instagram Reels binge, I came across a suspicious looking praying mantis. These are weird creatures. They’re the mysterious cousin of the roach; dinosaurs turned stick-figure mini-beasts. After sex, the female mantis sometimes bites off and eats the head of the male. Most exotic, they are the unofficial (and telepathic) “spirit insect” of the DMT realm.4
But the weirdest thing about them has to be the ‘praying mantis molt.’ Their body freezes, and two pincers pierce out the top of their head. A new (and upgraded) praying mantis pries itself out through the top of the old beast. It’s changed from green to brown, it’s 1.5x the size, and now it has wings (run). This is the real-life equivalent of the Charmeleon to Charizard evolution, except it’s too gross to show on my Substack.5
The mammalian kingdom has nothing this extreme. We grow and scale slowly and proportionally. Day to day, we don’t look any different. Our cells replenish each decade, and you can hardly notice a change other than a few inches, a few wrinkles, and squeaky joints. It’s highly efficient, and most critically, under the radar.
The prospect of change is paralyzing. If you suddenly knew that you were on the verge of a rapid, uncontrollable growth spurt, you’d properly freak out.6 Even insects get paranoid before they molt — they know it’s coming. The praying mantis will lose its appetite, avoid light, become sluggish, and hang upside down. They retreat, they molt, and two days later, they’re living life as a Praying Mantis+.
This happens six times before they die. It’s an involuntary crisis — it’s forced on them. But each time, they emerge with physical maturity.
The psyche can outgrow itself, but it prefers not to. We’d rather feel busy, make tweaks, and drown in distractions than make the hard-to-swallow changes that have impact on our lives. The pain of metamorphosis is real,7 so we justify our past decisions to feel good about the shell we’re in. The ego’s one job is to preserve identity. It’s an anti-molt machine.
But if you can stomach it, you can short-circuit your scripts, shed the skin of your identity, and find yourself in a completely new head. The decision to molt is yours. The real question is: when?
A cadence for decision making
The biggest decisions in life are extremely fuzzy and easy to procrastinate on. The future is an abyss. “One day, I’ll do that thing.” Your dreams are perpetually 5 years in the future; like a carrot on a string, they inch forward as you walk. It’s the cost of indecisiveness.
You can solve this dilemma with artificial urgency. This is already routine in Startup Land, where young companies have big visions but no deadlines. A bi-weekly ‘sprint cycle’ puts things into motion. Projects turn into little chunks. It’s all incremental. After you go through a few sprints, you start to master the arc of the interval.
The 1,000 day cycle is a device for action too, but at a different scale. It’s like a birthday, except there are no balloons, no cakes, and no celebrations — only a scheduled email from your past self that says, “time to molt.” This interval is almost perfectly centered between the year and the decade,8 and oddly enough, it seems to be a predictor of crisis.
This all started when my brother (the king of weird stats) congratulated me on turning 10,000 days old. It was peculiar; a nice round number to grasp, but it slowly haunted me. “I know what one day is… I have no idea what 10,000 days is… so what is 1,000 days?” It’s 2.74 years, but what is that?
I calculated the dates, plotted out my life within them, and found some uncanny patterns. Before this framework, I saw my past as a soup of situations. Now, I see an invisible cadence. Looking backwards, the answer to “what is your thing?” shifted every 1,000 days:
My shifts in childhood obsessions— from Mickey Mouse, to Super Mario, to the New York Mets, to middle school cliques, to the music scene — were ~1,000 days each.
My shifts in young adulthood— from “Miami Mike,” to the cult of architecture, to psychedelic research, to running a virtual reality company, to moving in with my girlfriend (now wife) — were also ~1,000 days each.
Not only were distinct identities contained in each phase, but there’s always chaos at the seams: a car accident, a betrayal, a pandemic, the death of my startup. These events forced change: switching majors, switching industries, moving out, and moving on.
Weirdly enough, others have found a similar cadence in their life. In Tiago Forte’s annual review, From Mid Life Crisis to Reinvention, he reflects on a major disruption happening every 2.8 years (1,022 days). It’s eerily close.
“I began reading through my journals looking for clues to how I’ve navigated such moments in the past. I seem to have had 5 mid-life crises before, separated by 2.8 years on average. Each one was triggered by a major life event, and confronted me with an existential question I had to answer in order to move into the next stage of my life.”
Is there an arc to identity shedding? Is our psyche on a 1,000 day molt-cycle, and we just haven’t realized how it behaves like a growing insect trying to thrash out of its old shell?
Maybe 1,000 days is the general lag between our big decisions and how they unfold and expose themselves back to us.9 Or maybe what I’m saying sounds like numerology, bordering Aztec nonsense. Deriving meaning from a 1,000 day cycle is the equivalent of finding animals in the clouds or constellations in the stars. You’ll draw the conclusions you want to draw. You’ll always find meaning when you need it.
There is no shortage of wonky theories that look for patterns in the past.10 What’s important here isn’t how we connect the dots of our history. It’s how we carve into the future. Your thorny decisions need a deadline. If you become conscious of the interval, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you realize a 1,000 day milestone is approaching, and there’s a looming situation you’ve been unsatisfied with, then maybe it’s time to molt.
Shed the macro-frame
I’m not promoting radical and senseless life decisions. I’m not going to divorce my wife, steal the car, and live out Jack Kerouac fantasies11 across America just because of a superstitious calendar. That’s not transformation; that’s weak and reckless. Molting isn’t about shedding for the sake of shedding. It’s about confronting the right things.12 It’s about making the moves that are obvious but nerve-chilling. It’s about finding the simple but significant pivot that lets a new paradigm bloom.
There’s value to molting on a fixed cadence (whether you’re conscious of the rhythm or not). It carves life into a series of chapters. You can fully immerse within each one, and yet, all chapters come to an end. It brings you the benefits of commitment and exploration. These two ends of the spectrum are typically at odds, and there’s a dilemma with each:
The person who only commits reaps the benefits of stability and compound growth, but they’re more likely to stick with a situation that isn’t working for them.
The person who only explores will find endless freedom and novelty, but their lack of foundation makes it hard to fuel the growth that comes from commitment.
The middle ground comes through molting. You commit intensely within a paradigm, but you maintain the option to ‘shed the macro-frame’ if it doesn’t work after a solid effort. Through committing, you learn the landscape. You build a high-resolution model of the past decision you’ve crawled into. Naturally, you find the holes. This is about giving yourself permission to find a new, nearby shell in a graceful and intelligent way. You can always reset the constraints of the game you’re playing.
The clearest example of frame-shedding comes from my origins as an architect. In 1,000 days, I went from “the Human Copy Machine” (the lowest tier of an architectural intern) to selling digital hallucinations to celebrities, household brand names, and foreign governments. It was a trip. It showed me how radically different your path can unfold if you’re willing to molt. Quick story:
During college, I was all-in on becoming a master architect. My whole identity revolved around it. I bought into that romantic dream of a creative visionary who could shape the crust of the Earth with buildings. Howard Roark was my idol.13 I worked intensely, improved rapidly, and won 3 of the 3 design competitions I entered. All signs pointed to a bright future ahead, until I grasped the Great Disillusion.
Out of school, my first role involved filing paperwork and manually copying annotations across multiple drawing sets. It was tedious. It was endless. Only after committing to architecture could I grasp the realities of the industry. I wasn’t designing new buildings, nor was basically anyone else. To sniff out the design work, there were politics to play and decades to spend. The road to licensure felt long and meaningless. The industry’s salaries weren’t very high. There’s a general unhappiness in the profession, and now I understand why architecture has the highest suicide rate for white-collar professions.
It seemed unthinkable to leave the industry I sunk 2,000 days and a college degree into, but I sensed the limits of the shell I chose. I had friends in firms across the city, and I was bound to find the same woes wherever I shifted. A pivot within the macro-frame wasn’t enough. I had to smother the dying dream. I had to shed the macro-frame. Of course, the crest of decision was filled with doubt, dread, and demons. But it was time to molt.
I left my job and started a virtual reality company. We sold ‘immersive’14 design simulations to architects and developers. I was an infant in this new phase, teaching myself coding, video game engines, and business development. But it wasn’t an entirely new frame, it was an ‘adjacent frame.’ I was engaging with the same industry, but from a totally new angle.
When you molt, you don’t completely abandon your past. You retain your relationships, skills, and perspectives. Many of the same parts are still in the picture; they’re just re-connected in a new way. I was still in the realm of architecture, but instead of designing buildings, I mastered the technology that designers needed.
It’s inevitable. All decisions reach fruition. All situations calcify. Molting is the natural process of dissolving your blocks and melting into the world of adjacent possibility.
Spiraling into the mystery
You might only have 30 molts in your life. If you follow through on each one, there’s no knowing what you’ll become. You spiral into the unknown. The idea of endless shape-shifting might bring you a sense of queasiness. But maybe the unknown shape of the future can be a source of wonder.
In Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgment’ (1790) he coined a phrase for something that grows unpredictably: a “free natural beauty.” He’s referring to plants and insects whose current form can’t predict their final form. Who knows what they’ll be. The lone botanist knows, but the pedestrian, and even the thing itself, is in the dark. They might know a phase shift is near, but the end state is a mystery.
If you commit to the molt, your future becomes a mystery too. There’s no destination. There’s not even a path. All you can do is get out of your own way and have faith that nature will guide you through the chasm of shadows. Ignore the demons of doubt, and let the psychic insect thrash into the light of mystery, over and over.
Here’s an age calculator to see your 1,000 day cycles. See any patterns?
Any molting experiences worth sharing?
Did the footnotes add to the experience?
Special thanks to: Elizabeth Edwards for talking this out in its earliest stage, Isabel for sharing her ‘growing pains’ essay and enthusiasm around the idea, Taylor Foreman for shedding through early drafts together, and Garrett Kincaid for helping me cut, structure, and polish.
A homunculus is a fully formed human, only 6-8 inches tall, created in a lab experiment. It was an odd motivation of the 16th century alchemists who first had the impulse to tamper with creation. The being represents both artificiality and alienation. Source
I write this from the other side of a sudden and stressful move. My wife and I thought we’d be in our last place, “potentially forever,” given it’s been in her family for several generations. But the living arrangement wasn’t working. The decision was obvious, but we had no clear sense of “where to?” Whenever we got the itch, I’d start stress-panning on Zillow. We were unrestricted. We could head out east, fix a shack in the Catskill mountains, settle in the suburbs, buy a ranch in bumblefuck, rent in Austin, jet to Argentina, or return to the homeland (a medieval stone building in a 500-year old Greek village). Anything was possible, but we froze. Burdened by choice, we lingered in an unstable situation for over a year… We ended up moving 10 minutes down the road. The new place is great, probably the favorite one we’ve had. Space. Privacy. Parking. Walking distance to cafes, bodegas, a train station, and Greektown.
The connection between insects and rebirth go back to ancient times. In Egypt, the ‘golden scarab’ (a beetle) was the symbol for rebirth. In Aristotle’s “The History of Animals,” he talks about how cicadas go through “perpetual rejuvenation,” and how the shedding of their shells is a jovial and creative act. Even the word “imagination” stems from insects. The word “imago” refers to the fresh insect that emerges from the shell, just like a fresh visual idea that bursts from the mind.
Here’s a collection of trip reports that include a praying mantis. This one stands out: “I was lying on what seemed to be a large marble slab, cold and hard. Surrounding me were four tall (7' ?) emerald green mantis type creatures, all chittering at me in some high pitched language(?). I felt no fear, no threat. It seemed they were trying to communicate, though none of their sounds made any sense to me. This went on for what seemed like about a half hour.” Note: this was from an oral dose of hashish.
If you want to see molting in action, there’s plenty of footage on YouTube. Or, check out the Wikipedia page for Ecdysis — the form of molting specific to invertebrates who shed their entire body (including scorpions, tarantulas, crayfish, dragonflies, etc.).
As a kid, I remember reading a short-story about a character who ate something and grew to massive heights. I can’t recall the name. I asked Chat GPT for help, and it gave me fake references, including “The Magic Flute” and “The Bean Boy.” If you know of any real stories like this, please let me know.
Check out Isabel’s essay on growing pains — “Growing pains occur when you evolve internally while your environment stays the same, creating a gap in the compatibility between who you are and where you are.”
1,154 days is 3.16x away from both the year and the decade. One year is usually too quick for change to be felt. “Happy Birthday! Do you feel any older?” “No.” The decade feels like it packs too much within it. Neither are useful units of growth. They stem from the gravity of space rocks, not our psyche.
Perhaps this rhythm is only felt by people who are perceptive of their situation, honest about how it makes them feel, and open to make radical path changes.
Two models come to mind here. 1) The Strauss-Howe generational theory breaks the recent past into four 20 year cycles, or an 80-year macro-cycle (the average human lifespan). Looking backwards, you can plot major conflicts every 80 years (World War 2, the Civil War, the American Revolution). The Mayans had a similar 52-year cycle of destruction (as well as a shorter life-span). Maybe the lesson here is that we suffer from amnesia and don’t actually internalize lessons from the past. 2) In 1987, Terence McKenna wrote software called Timewave Zero. He shaped an algorithm that accounted for all the ‘novelty’ through human history. When he extrapolated it forward, it concluded that 2012 was the “end of history,” or, a moment of unimaginable novelty. Did he start that meme?
There was a six year lag between when Kerouac wrote “On The Road” (1951) and when it got publishe (1957). He got famous for becoming the American vagabond, but by that point, he had retired from traveling and moved to Florida. He was a Catholic living in his mother’s suburban basement, suffering from a severe drinking problem.
In Four Great Decisions Per Year, Nat Eliason mentions how the choices we need to make have a way of revealing themselves: “None of the major decisions that have shaped my life were lengthy deliberations. They were each slowly building momentum for months or years, and then the decision was suddenly obvious. A certain amount of energy had built up behind it in my subconscious until one day, the dam burst, and the choice was clear. We clearly cannot sit down and decide to make life-changing decisions. They seem to pop out of our subconscious in moments of surprising clarity.”
Howard Roark was the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel, “Fountainhead.” He represents the character who is obsessed with mastery, contrasting Peter Keating, the status-obsessed antagonist. Roark was based on Frank Lloyd Wright, who apparently was close friends with Rand.
We used “immersive” in our marketing materials to separate ourselves from the cheap panorama experiences you got from sticking your phone into a cardboard viewer. We used gaming PCs, hand tracking, and headsets with “six degrees of freedom.” This lets the person not just move their head around, but move their body within a 15’ square. They could lean in and out of door frames and turn on light switches. Virtual reality done right can fully capture the essence of a space.