“At the Edge of Life” With Pietro Boselli

Dylan Nine/Pietro Boselli for Palladium Magazine

This interview appears in PALLADIUM 10: Cultural Excellence. Become a Palladium member to receive it in print.

Pietro Boselli began training his mind and body from a young age. At six years old, he was already working with Armani Junior in his home country of Italy. While still completing his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at University College London and lecturing on mathematics, he became globally recognized for his work with the world’s leading fashion brands. Today, modeling and fitness are what make him a star. But as Boselli tells it, he did not come to realize the true impact of these passions on his ethos of life until many years into the work. At a high level of mastery, the two very different disciplines became complementary with each other in surprising ways.

Today, Boselli lives in Miami. A believer in solitary journeys that test the spirit, he regularly ventures out into the deep ocean, the Namibian desert, and similarly unforgiving terrains. It’s in these moments of totally non-negotiable confrontations with nature that he encounters life at its fullest intensity. When not engaged in one of his many pursuits, his motorcycle affords him moments of respite and reflection. “One of the appeals to me about moving to Miami was the fact you can ride a motorbike without a helmet,” he tells us during the course of a long conversation.

Palladium Magazine spoke with Boselli about his work, his ethos of life, the role of philosophy and ancient authors in his thinking, the meaning of life and death, and more.

Youve accomplished a lot as both a model and an engineer. Theyre very different kinds of work, at least on the surface. What have you learned from these experiences? And how have these fields related to each other?

Throughout my life, I felt like I ran through very different experiences in parallel, especially at the beginning. They didn’t seem to be in symphony or aid each other. The realization that fields of endeavor that seem very distinct can actually positively influence, affect, and enhance each other was a notion that actually came to me later on. I guess it was in my early 20s. I pinpoint that moment to after my graduation from undergrad. And the anecdote I always like to tell is that after I graduated from UCL with my mechanical engineering degree, I compiled my resume and went to a career advisor, the kind most colleges have. I showed them my resume and they were impressed by my academic background. Throughout the three years of my time in academia, I had the highest grades in the whole faculty of engineering. Already in my second year, I was elected as mentor for the first-years and then senior mentor the year after. My academic record was great. My third-year project had already become a published paper. So in terms of academia, I was very focused and very driven. 

But I always considered that to be its own thing. At the same time, I was doing other things. Most notably, I was doing modeling, which I’d started when I was six years old. It was a career that I felt was kind of irrelevant to what I was doing in academia. It did pay my bills and it did help me pursue my career in academia. I moved to London at 18 when I had no money whatsoever. And so, the career advisor looked at my CV and was like, “Well, this is impressive, academically speaking. But you have no work experience. Anyone who’s looking to employ someone would want to know that you have worked before.” And I said, “Well, that’s not accurate. In fact, since a very young age, I’ve been a model.”

At the time, because I was very busy with academia, I was very selective with the modeling jobs that I was taking. I would only accept the good ones. Normally, this is not the case. It’s kind of weird how it works in modeling. Obviously, most models need the money and they want to pursue that career. So they’ll take any job, especially early on, and that can take you in a direction that you don’t want to go. You know, maybe you become a more commercial model or you start doing e-commerce shoots and you get pigeonholed in a certain category. Whereas I was only doing the jobs that I liked and that I thought were cool. I would only sacrifice my time—which was very precious time because I was only dedicating most of my time to studying and working out—and paradoxically, that helped me. I was doing Giorgio Armani fashion shows and photoshoots. I would accept jobs like campaigns with Bruce Weber. That elevated my image.

Do you have more leverage when you have these parallel tracks? You dont feel overly dependent on any one opportunity and you can demand more from your work.

Yes, 100 percent. I didn’t see myself as a career model. I was just trying to make the most out of this. I did a job if I enjoyed it. Even for big clients like Armani, I was offered jobs that were more routine. Showroom work, for example: some models like to have a showroom contract, which basically means that you stay there all day and big buyers, like from Harrods or from Russia and China, come in for the brand. They need to see what the clothes look like on a model, so there are some models that just spend the whole day waiting to try on the clothes for the clients. But the problem is that people who start mainly doing the showrooms will eventually not be shooting the campaigns. They’re just a showroom model.

For me, that was not something that I could ever do. I did it once because I wanted to try it and was given the opportunity. It’s good money. But the kind of people doing that work were people who, during the day, were construction workers or something. It would be someone who was in manual labor and realized they could get paid 10 times as much for just sitting there all day. That was kind of the philosophy. For me, it was very tough to sit there all day. Literally, I lasted one day.

Whenever I showed up for modeling jobs, I was very relaxed about it because I didn’t see myself as a career model. I had a different type of confidence. If I was at a shoot, I wasn’t sucking up to the photographer. I was friendly to everyone. I was there just to make the most of the experience, and people remember you for that, especially in an industry that’s as subjective as modeling. There are hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of guys that look good. You have to be in shape and have a decent bone structure. But you know, the entry-level is actually quite low, contrary to what most people think. And so how do you distinguish yourself? Usually, people judge other people with basic heuristics, then they rationalize that choice. You know, they’ll say this person is better for this or that reason. But as they rationalize, they’ve actually already made a subconscious decision. 

What were the main things you learned in this process?

So yeah, going back to the career advisor, he asked, “Why didn’t you mention this in your CV? This is so relevant. It shows basic skills. You negotiate with clients, you show up on time for jobs, and you maintain a schedule even during your academic work. You have obviously taken on the responsibility of work from an early age. And I think this is very relevant.”

I like to pinpoint that moment as my switch in mentality. I could embrace this part of my talents as something that I shouldn’t be ashamed of and something that distinguished me from other people. If anything, people will be even keener to meet you because it’s very different. I think that was the first time that I realized, though not to the deepest level, that there could be benefits from the two things. Since I always like to think philosophically, that triggered a whole chain of thoughts that came in time, which made me realize how important interdisciplinarity is for life in general.

I was familiar with the concept of interdisciplinarity in the engineering field. A simple example is the paper that I published which was on the optimization of turbine blades for jet engines. The optimization algorithm that I used to optimize the geometry was a genetic algorithm. Whoever came up with it was obviously a computer scientist who was very familiar with the genetic operations of mutation, crossover, reproduction, and so on. That person realized, “What if instead of chromosomes, we apply the mechanisms of evolution, such as mutation, crossover, and reproduction to a string of binary data representing our problem’s inputs, and then we evolve a solution over several ‘generations’?” That’s brilliant and in science that’s used a lot. But what if you apply the same mentality to life in the broader sense? What if there’s something that I’m learning without realizing, like modeling?

You have a very well-defined ethos of life. You care about real risk, intensity, and excellence. Were you coming to the realizations you’re talking about with that cultivation already done? Or was it a result of these experiences?

I’ll give you another example, which brings me to my third sphere of interest: fitness. This has always been a huge component of what I’ve done. I’ve excelled in that over time. I started young with swimming, then trail running, then cross-country running, and triathlons. After that, I started into general fitness. I think my interdisciplinary approach to life helped me a lot, even incidentally. For example, I am 100 percent confident my cognitive ability improved because I worked out every day. We all know that there’s a strong correlation. If you have better sleep, you learn better, and so on. I don’t need to explain the importance of cultivating your body in parallel with your mind. I think nowadays there’s a big hype about it and there are lots of podcasts that talk about it.

When you challenge yourself physically, you put yourself into conditions that are outside your comfort zone. That teaches you psychologically important things that you can apply to life in general. It gives you a certain type of fortitude. There are obviously neurological explanations for all this but it’s very intuitive to understand when you actually put yourself into a physically straining situation, or into extreme sports and physical challenges, or even into a situation where nature challenges you.

That last is something that I always tried to do during those years. I used to swim every morning at 6 a.m., outdoors in the ponds of Parliament Hill. In the winter, I literally would have to break the ice in the morning to get in. I put myself through that every morning. And every morning I thought, am I actually doing this? And then you do it anyway. When that becomes a habit, it helps you perform better in all other aspects of life.

For me, fitness was always just for me. I never intended to be a personal trainer. I never intended to teach anyone anything about it and I myself was always self-taught. It’s like a passion—I feel like most of the things that I’ve done in my life were like that. But I was working out at a gym in London and I became friends with this guy who was a competitive fitness athlete. He always said, “You should come to the next competition! You should come on the stage. You have a great physique and I think you’ll do well.” That’s when I discovered the whole world of fitness fanatics who have all this bro science and all the different diets. It’s like a culture on its own.

So I showed up at this competition. My approach to fitness has always been influenced by my background in science and academia. Because I worked in science, I have pre-determined methods to arrive at a conclusion. So there can be deduction or induction. You look at correlations and you look at positions. All of these mechanisms overcome the more heuristics-based approach that most people have in understanding life—the intuitive way. And that helps. When I started going to the gym at 18, people would tell me to take some supplement or do a routine, and my first question would always be, “How do you know that’s true?” It sounds so silly but it’s not a question that everybody asks themselves. Where do you get this information from? I was definitely excited about the fact that there’s a whole field of knowledge that can help you achieve results better. The logical thing to do was to go to the medical library that I had at my disposal at UCL and read through books on physiology and anatomy. You don’t have to be passionate about it, just read it.

The secret you discover is that there is no secret. People like quick fixes and quick solutions. But it’s all dictated by the need we have for full control. I want to measure how much protein I consume, I want to have a fixed routine that works, and I want to take rational thinking out of the equation. Rational thinking is what takes the most energy, so people try to avoid it. But if you invest some energy in that, you arrive at a better solution. You need balance: you don’t bombard yourself with protein because you need to listen to your body. It all goes back to common sense but you arrive at this common sense through a rational route. Since you can’t keep track of every nutrient you take in, your information is incomplete anyway! So just stick to common sense and then try to learn with time.

So because I had this approach to fitness, it made me successful in that goal as well. It made my fitness regimen sustainable over the long term. That’s why I was just working out by myself and this guy asked me to compete. “The competition is in 10 days,” he told me, “Usually you have to sign up six months ahead, but we’ll pull some strings.” I showed up and everybody had been dehydrating for a week because they wanted to look lean and then loading carbs on the day of the show. All these things that we come up with become popular by word of mouth. The whole culture of fitness revolves around it. Anyway, I literally showed up eating a Pret a Manger croissant or something. People were like, “What is this guy doing?” Everybody else was doing push-ups. And you know, I think I had literally just submitted my Ph.D. thesis at the time. I was revising some stuff for a lecture backstage.

It sounds like youre comfortable with incomplete knowledge about things, with not having the whole picture. The more important thing is having resilience and a good sense of judgment so that you can act on what you do know. In fact, thats the scientific method applied to everything.

Science is a system of doubt and of incompleteness. This is what people don’t understand. They want certainty from science. That’s why you have to leverage what talents you do have. In this case, the scientific mentality helped me in fitness, which might be unexpected.

When I stepped on the stage, there were many people, obviously, with great physiques. Maybe even people with more mass or more definition. They’d done everything right, dedicating their life to that. But I stepped on the stage with the confidence that I had from having done thousands of shoots and runway shows, and so on—you know, kind of not caring. It sounds weird, but I was doing my best and didn’t really care what the outcome was because I wasn’t defined by this, it was just something else I was passionate about. And sure enough, I won the European title. They gave me the trophy and I put it in my backpack. I was about to leave because I was just going to cycle off from the O2 Arena. My friend from the gym came to me and said, “Oh, I saw you on stage! You looked great. But you can improve this and that, maybe next time you’ll win!” And I told him, “I won.” And he was like, “What!?”

These people tried so hard, thinking about their pseudoscience and sticking to such a strict regimen. This friend of mine who took me there was like that. He would never eat a plate of pasta. I once told him, “Listen, you’re giving yourself a precisely measured amount of something that you worked out arbitrarily. So it doesn’t matter how precisely you measure.” He used the scale to measure his oats. But how did he figure out what amount of oats he needs?

All these different life experiences, they’re very diverse. But they converged into helping me achieve results. Eventually, this formed a school of thought in my own mind, an interdisciplinary approach to life. Even though things seem very distant from one another, you can benefit because they make you a more complete human being. There’s more breadth and depth to you as a person, because the more experience you have, the more you have from which to form a frame of reference. Obviously, if you go through life with any analytical or critical attitude, then you create a topology of the world that is more accurate in your mind. It makes more sense with time.

But I guess it’s important to have this variety of experiences precisely because of this. What you learn from one field can help you in another in an unexpected way. This is the whole point of interdisciplinarity. You don’t study biology thinking, “One day, I’m going to develop an algorithm to design turbines.” But it just so happens that you have that knowledge, so it helps you. It always helps you in an unexpected way.

The Human Condition and the Wisdom of the Past

You find it a valuable practice to read the works of the past, especially philosophy. You have even translated some of the classical authors from Latin. What kind of value do you find in these things? And which authors have informed your philosophical thinking?

The transferability of critical thinking and the ability to learn from any discipline came to me early on in life. I have to credit some of my teachers for this. You might be aware that in Italy the teaching system is very different than in the Anglo-Saxon countries. It’s a very old tradition. First of all, there is the historical and chronological approach to things. So you study the history of art, the history of philosophy, and so on. You study the philosophers in chronological order.

It’s also a more knowledge-based approach, rather than a skills-based approach. Of course, there are many different types of high schools in Italy. You can go to high schools where you learn more practical skills or crafts, but I’m talking about what we call “scientific” high schools and “classical” high schools, which are the ones intended for people who want to then pursue higher education. My school was one of those. So the curricula at the scientific and classical schools are basically the same, with the exception being that I didn’t study Ancient Greek. But my curriculum included Latin for five years, plus philosophy, literature, art history, and humanities. That was very humanities-based. That was probably what I spent most of my time on in high school. In the scientific high school, you make up for Ancient Greek with more focus on physics and mathematics. So for me, that was the more complete curriculum. I was very fulfilled by that.

I studied a lot of literature as well. I’m lucky because, obviously, Italy has a wealth of literature. Then you combine that with Latin and translate the ancient authors directly. Some concepts are not translatable in other languages. There are some languages that are way more expressive, even among modern languages. It’s a well-known fact, for example, that German is a very expressive language and that you can’t translate some German words into English. A similar thing can be said about Latin. The other thing about Latin: most people think, “Why would you study Latin?” My teacher always said that one of the benefits of studying Latin was not just learning Latin, which we’ll forget in the course of life. If you give me a Latin text, I’d have a hard time translating it now because you forget if you don’t practice. So you think, “Well, I wasted time.” No, I haven’t. Latin has a very structured grammar. It develops your logical thinking, translating those texts. It allows for this lateral application of a skill. The thinking used to translate Latin helps you in mathematics.

This was reinforced by the fact that I didn’t study any engineering-related topics. I didn’t know how to use Excel spreadsheets, I didn’t even know how to use a computer. I didn’t have anything engineering-related. Then, I went straight from this to studying engineering at UCL in London, which is very skill-based. And I still excelled. I was there for the first three months and I had already taken nine exams. I had the highest grades on all the exams. And none of those were subjects I had ever studied before. The undergraduate tutor called me in and he was like, “How do you explain this? Did you study engineering before?” That was the first question he asked me. Well, actually, no—I had studied Latin, I had studied philosophy. And then I applied that method of learning to everything else. So you transfer your skills and your critical thinking.

There is another extremely important benefit to both the practice of studying but also to the actual content. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the focus on content is what you can do with it. How useful is it and what is its utility? What’s the practical utility of knowing what Seneca said? And for example, if you study law, they’ll teach you Roman law because it’s useful to know those concepts. But is there another application from reading the classics that is not as directly applied in your life? And the answer is yes: human nature is always the same. You know, human nature has not changed. If you were to take an ancient Roman infant and bring them here now, they would be indistinguishable from us.

There is so much noise in our contemporary ways of speaking and thinking. It seems to be a byproduct of modernity. Ancient writers like Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius are often more salient and accurate about human nature. Theyre also very direct. 

That’s 100 percent the way I see it. Why are these classics so relevant nowadays? It’s that human nature is still the same. So why were these people better, in some way, at really understanding human nature? The probable answer to that is that they were exposed to less noise than us. And they were also closer to the original human condition.

There is this triangulation that occurs from different perspectives. Clearly, if were trying to get to a better, more perfect understanding, then it helps to know that what was true for us now was also true 2,000 years ago in a completely different cultural context. If you dont have that knowledge, or that historical perspective, or the ability to think, how can you separate the noise from the signal?

Yeah, it’s very interesting. Obviously, especially back then, most knowledge was transmitted orally. The invention of writing is what allowed us to start accumulating knowledge and building the collective intelligence that allowed us to really exceed the limits of our individual intelligence. The technology we have now wouldn’t be possible without storing information and without the processing of information that comes from writing. And now, with internet communication and so on.

You have so many individual geniuses in the past because it was really a single-person endeavor to figure out things. You didn’t have to get up to speed with a massive amount of accumulated knowledge. Now, if you want to advance knowledge in any field, you need to be hyper-specialized. Not only that, you need to really know everything that has been done before you. Most research work at university, there’s a reason they call it research. You spend most of your time figuring out what other people have done before you and what went wrong. Another one of my biggest frustrations from the academic world is that all of the scientific studies, or any papers that are published, are reporting a positive result. I wish I had the much larger database of things that went wrong so that people don’t have to do them again.

Leonardo da Vinci was the canonical Renaissance man: scientist, inventor, artist, and philosopher. But they didnt have the specialization that we do now. They were rooted in a historical understanding and were very aware of the classical heritage. And they werent hubristic enough to think that being able to read some library of works in whatever field meant that they had equaled it.

It’s almost like you have to figure it out from scratch. You’re in more direct contact with what I like to call the baseline human condition. Our progress improved our quality of life in the humanistic sense. If we value human life, then anything that maximizes human life, whether in individual or collective terms, is considered progress. Technology and innovation were always achieved in the pursuit of improving our quality of life in all sorts of ways. It’s easily measured by how long we live and so on. That’s what we always strive for. But in a way, it has also taken us away from the baseline condition in which we evolved—our natural environment, in a sense. And that environment is where you can probably observe human behaviors in a more direct way, untainted from noise.

People who are into health and biohacking are trying to create an optimal living environment that mimics our natural state, by trying to optimize our circadian rhythm for example, or whatever other hacks are popular nowadays. But it becomes cumbersome and even stressful to force all those rules for the “natural” state into our artificially-built world. And while being perfectly healthy and aligned with our circadian rhythm can be positive, sometimes even the opposite extremes can produce a net positive. If you think of Charles Bukowski, who lived his life as a drunk loser and then produced beautiful work, that’s not the natural condition. It’s removed from what basic human nature is. You’re not exposed to things that your psyche is supposed to be exposed to. In the baseline, your children will die before the age of five from a disease. If you’re outside facing the elements, you have a lower chance of survival if you don’t have technology helping you.

I always think, what does this affect? What does it do to your psyche? Does being closer to our natural habitat make our human nature shine brighter? Why is my sleep not optimal? Because we used to live in a cave and it was dark inside. But you don’t have to think about that anymore. Or when you analyze our human interactions, you think about your relationship with your parents or your environment, but your environment is so far from the original one. So where are the signal and the noise? I feel that the ancient thinkers and philosophers, because they were closer to the original human condition, had a more untainted view of how each relationship affected the others and how the human psyche works. So there is profound learning to be had from these writers.

So one objective of philosophy is to tell us what the fundamental human condition really is. How do you think about this?

In the pursuit of philosophy, understanding the human condition is only one pursuit. There’s also the nature of things, and so on. The only reason I mention the human condition more prominently when talking about the classics is that this is what remains constant. It’s an advantage to eliminate the noise in order to understand the human condition. For the nature of the universe, for example, we did eventually need to rely on more advanced tools to come to a further understanding. And, if you read the classics, most of the work was on the nature of the universe. But it was so infantile compared to what we know now.

In terms of what attracts me, I like to extract more knowledge about the human condition from the classical authors than on the origin of the cosmos. Obviously, I’m attracted by that as well. In fact, I probably think about that more than the human condition. That’s what attracts me to science. But that’s a whole different thing.

In terms of the human condition, though, the philosophers have always been a help in that realm. At the end of the day, the way we live our lives is through our conscious experience. And our conscious experience is tied to the human condition and our own personal condition. We can’t extract ourselves from that. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I read a book by Einstein called The Evolution of Physics. That’s what really turned me into a scientist. At the time, I didn’t realize that was going to be my pursuit.

There’s this fascination with how the world works, when you start thinking about the cosmos and then suddenly, you reach a point where you realize, “Whoa, I’m so small compared to that.” That is kind of strange because when you think about the cosmos, you suddenly become irrelevant yourself. And so you’re like, “Well, I’m just like a speck in the universe, I count for nothing.” And yet, when you think about yourself in terms of what human nature is, then you understand that you can only perceive the cosmos through your own devices. So you’re a speck, a nothing, and at the same time, you’re the whole universe. You cannot experience the whole universe through your own limited conscious experience, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a speck. You’re the whole universe to your conscious existence.

So these two things exist in parallel. Precisely because human nature is so important to how you perceive the cosmos, it’s important to think about both. I don’t know if it’s true, but a common prejudice that people have against scientists seems to be that they believe too much in pursuit of the knowledge of the cosmos and so they forget about the human condition. Obviously, it is more true nowadays. Since the Industrial Revolution, science has been put on a pedestal because of its practical utility. Especially in the first part of the twentieth century, science was perceived as a higher pursuit and everything else could be brushed aside—the humanities, and so on. That is what influenced American culture a lot. This is why the education system in America is so skill-based and why the sciences are considered more relevant, in a way, than the humanities.

But if you look before that, it’s different. The French philosophers, like Pascal and Descartes, have been a big influence on me. I really enjoyed their writing because they were thinkers but also scientists. The post-Copernican period was a time in history when philosophers started applying a different method of thinking, one that was more rigorous. This slowly started unfolding and they realized, “Wait, if we are to pursue the understanding of the cosmos, we need tools that build on the knowledge of previous people and are tested against reality.” And the scientific method was the clear example of that. Most of the learning to be had about the human condition actually came from scientists. That’s why Descartes was an important philosopher for me, among the many that I’ve read, because of his postulation of the duality of human nature. So, mind and body, and the separation between the two.

Obviously, I don’t subscribe to it myself. But I feel many people just subscribe to a philosophy. Maybe you read like a philosopher and decide you like this way of thinking, so now you subscribe to this way of thinking as a system. I don’t see philosophy like that. It’s always a constant process of learning and a constant knowing of all these different ways of thinking. I want to learn what Descartes was thinking. 

But you dont want to be a Cartesian.

Yeah! Like, his rational proof of the existence of God is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever read. It’s just incredible how it’s presented, the whole premise of it. And then what’s even more incredible for me is to go in and read Kant and how he refutes this proof by going to a deeper level. Descartes said, “God is the perfect by definition, the perfect being cannot lack the attribute of existence.” At first, that makes sense. If you’re perfect, then by definition you have all the attributes and existence has to be one of them. But then, obviously, the problem is that you are jumping from an epistemological level to an ontological level. You make a jump that you can’t make.

There is a lot to be learned from this kind of deductive thinking. For me, that has value. The duality of human nature that he proposes might not be accurate in exactly the format that he proposes it but I recognize it a lot in everyday life. It gives you a useful framework. It doesn’t always matter what is objectively true since you were never going to arrive at that conclusion anyway. Sometimes, what’s useful is the framework something gives to me to improve my life or to interpret life from the point of view of the human. We can pursue the knowledge of the cosmos, which is a separate thing and can be more objective and measured. But how is that useful to me?

Pascal also spoke about the duality of nature: we are both glorious and wretched. For me, that applies to so many instances in life, where you can just see that this is built into us. Even evolutionarily speaking, you can ask yourself any question. How can I navigate a relationship in modern times? Many men nowadays are struggling with the idea of monogamy. Is monogamy a social construct? Does it make sense, evolutionarily speaking? And if you look at it scientifically, you can get to both conclusions. Obviously, monogamy is useful for offspring and for the survival of the offspring. The genome survives because of that. But at the same time, if the genome spreads more, it also has a higher chance of survival. How do you reconcile the two driving forces? Well, they actually both exist at the same time. And that’s the duality of nature: there are always forces that go in opposite directions. Life is about finding an optimal point, kind of a Pareto optimal point, of different outcomes that you can choose from. That kind of choice is up to you.

Our Western culture measures success by one or two parameters. Its the byproduct of the Industrial Revolution mentality: GDP, scale, growth, and measuring. What is the definition of success?

And it measures everything with a parameter that can be maximized. I started life full of energy. Whatever I was doing, I just wanted to do the best that I could. It wasn’t that I wanted to be the best for its own sake. It was just a natural pursuit. But I realized that there needs to be a balance and that’s why it helped me to learn this philosophy, concepts like yin and yang, and all of these things.

The other dual aspect of human nature is your interior, inner experience as opposed to your exterior, external experience. When you start attaching your own purpose, your own fulfillment, and your own happiness to things that are external to you, you don’t have control over it. And that’s what the problem is—that’s our wretchedness. So that’s why you start exploring your inner experience and you start accepting the human side of things. This was especially important for someone like me, who has always been an advocate of reason. For me, reason is the common ground of understanding between each other and it is how we progress. But it’s an idealization to think of ourselves as rational beings. We are not. So settling this inner side is also important.

Adventure, Death, and the Non-negotiable Confrontation

You have embarked on a lot of solo adventures that included non-negotiable encounters with nature. What does that do for the mind and for the body? If you want to test an engineering system, you have to actually put it to the test. Presumably, the mind, the body, and the whole human being require a similar kind of hardening or rigor.

That’s a good parallel, the engineering system being put to the test. Obviously, engineering is all about building a model of reality. Especially nowadays, there are so many simulations. In the end, you always have to carry out a test. It’s a good parallel because we live in a constructed reality. That is true, physically speaking, of our apartments, grocery stores, and everything else that took us away from that baseline human condition. But there is also a mental aspect. I always say that human beings are not good at reasoning so much as we are good at rationalizing. We always identify with our rational selves. But the problem is that most of our decisions and interactions are actually made via our heuristics-based thinking, our intuition, and, to mention Daniel Kahneman, our fast thinking.

The problem there is that everything is so artificial around us. Not only physically speaking, but also in the interactions that we have with people and the problems that we have on a daily basis. We are very good at constructing rationalized explanations and at creating a causal chain of events that is completely made up. You get fired and in your mind, you can construct the thesis that you actually hated that job and you wanted to leave. When information is missing, we can complete the story we would want. You can negotiate your way out, you can construct a narrative. You can use that side of your brain that allows you to create this image of yourself.

In this way, you never actually hit the boundaries. You never actually put stress on your position. We are flexible and we are very intelligent, so we can rationalize. This is similar to the choices we make when we test our bodies. You justify yourself by saying, “Oh, well, I already did the treadmill today.” You think you’re testing yourself but you’re not. And so for me, an important part of interacting with the world and really understanding who you are is putting yourself in these situations that are difficult but not controlled. At the gym, there is the physical challenge to push yourself to a certain limit. Many people push themselves out of their comfort zone when it comes to working out. But what about pushing yourself to the limit by jumping into an ocean as waves crash down? No matter how proficient you are swimming, there is this element that is out of your control.

The danger is real, especially if you fail.

I cannot negotiate. I cannot create a story afterward. It just is what it is at that moment. So this has two effects on me. First of all, pushing the limit. Second, that state of presence and flow that you achieve. That state helps you get out of your thinking brain, your thinking machine. It’s almost paradoxical because then you do rely 100 percent on your heuristics and your fast thinking. You have to.

It’s always a good exercise for me because obviously, more than the average person, a lot of my life is based on slow thinking. I engage in rational thinking with so many of the decisions in my life. I have made spreadsheets about whether I should stay with a girlfriend or not, stuff like that. And that helps. We all know that even basic checklists help you make better-informed decisions. That’s why checklists are used in the medical field and in aviation. A simple checklist can eliminate 90 percent of human error. Just the process of doing it eliminates so much error and bias. It takes away from human fallibility.

But sometimes you need to have a situation in which this checklist is irrelevant.

What are some of the most important experiences that youve had of testing yourself?

Most of these pursuits, I began without a conscious attempt to achieve what we’re describing now. You know, you always analyze this afterward. I’m sure many people seek adventure or thrill without thinking about why. But I like to ask myself why. Many of these things, I guess, can not be fully described in a framework of thinking or logic. But I can give a few examples.

I began seeking adventure when I was around 12 or 13 years old. I used to go with a friend of mine to hike mountains and glaciers and so on. At the time, you can just ascribe that to a teenage impulse for risk-taking. It’s common when you’re growing up as a teenager to be risk-tolerant because you’re testing these boundaries. It’s part of growing and you kind of lose it with time. Basically, what I tried to do is not lose it with time. I exposed myself to this a lot growing up, so I didn’t want to stop this kind of pursuit when I was older.

For example, when I was 16, I really wanted to explore and travel. I didn’t have any money. So my means of travel was hitchhiking from one country to another with my sleeping bag. And this method of traveling is a test of your limits. Romantically, you can think that’s really cool. But when you find yourself in the suburbs of an unknown city, you have no place to sleep, and there are weird people around, that is a situation in which you need to figure it out. It’s uncomfortable. You think, “Oh, I wish I could just go back. I wish I could find a hotel.” This is the kind of situation in which you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s completely dark. And you’re like, “Okay, where am I? Is this a forest? Am I going to sleep here? Is there going to be an animal?” You don’t know but you just have to accept that you don’t know and power through that. I’ve had many trips like that.

You find yourself having to push yourself and push your limits. You learn that the people around you who we normally consider strangers and don’t interact with can actually be of help. But you have to push yourself outside your comfort zone and interact with them in a positive and constructive way. So this is a lesson. It’s something that is unexpected. People don’t put themselves in that situation because they don’t want to deal with, say, a strange man who’s on the side of the road. There was another test I did when I was 18. I went to Turkey with a friend of mine. At the time, there were these low-cost flights to Istanbul for like 10 euros. We took a return flight so we had maybe 20 days between our arrival and our return flight. But the experiment was that we went with no money, no credit card, and no means of accessing money, and we had to survive for two weeks. We needed to see the whole country.

So it doesnt actually need to be in nature or wilderness, per se. It can be in cities as well.

Yeah. Because suddenly you wonder, “Okay, how do I eat if I don’t have money? How do I transport myself from one place to another? Where do I sleep?” Suddenly, you’re open to all sorts of possibilities. We slept in a police station, we slept on top of a mountain, and we slept in a truck. You figure it out. You have to interact with people. So you get invited for lunch. And these are situations where, for me, you’re also testing your limits. I was testing what could I do to survive and live if it were just me. People have this romantic idea that they’re going to go into the forest. But can you even survive in the actual world?

One day, I had injured myself, so I wasn’t walking very well. And my friend was carrying my bag because I had a hard time walking. We arrived at this mosque and we asked, “Do you have a place for us to sleep?” And they were like, “Oh, yeah, you can sleep in the backyard.” It was a backyard which was kind of a dump, but whatever. When I went on this trip, I had one of those thin foam mats they use for camping but it had gotten cut in half in an accident. So only a strip was left. I unrolled it and I was on my side because the ground was not very even.

There was this homeless man who felt sorry for me. He came and he gave me his cardboard, he had some spare cardboard to lie on. We couldn’t speak the same language. But I had a pipe with some tobacco and I shared the pipe that I had. And he had some sunflower seeds. So we just spent the whole evening peeling the sunflower seeds, eating, smoking, and socializing completely without even knowing each other’s language. This is where I learned how you can also challenge yourself in situations that are social.

So this is one side. The other side is the more adventurous and physical kind of challenge. I was always attracted to sports that test your physical limits. I also liked to go to places that were very isolated, where if something goes wrong, no one can come to help you.

Is that a meditative experience?

It’s difficult for me to explain in words why I seek that. I always tried to expose some of my friends to the same kind of activities. It was always strange for me that not everybody felt the same about it. I guess everybody’s different. But for example, I’m very attracted to swimming in the deep ocean. When I take people, they often get freaked out when they wear their goggles and don’t see the bottom of the ocean. It’s dark and they hate that. I don’t know how to explain this but I really love that moment. There’s nothing like it. That’s why I pursued that.

That’s why I also pursued free diving. I remember, once I was in Sicily for a holiday and I would swim out into the open sea and go free diving. I swam really far out to reach the point in the ocean where you can’t see the bottom. My sport was to go and find the bottom on one breath. I remember this kid was fascinated by it and asked if I could take him with me one day. So, he came with me. When I said that we had reached the point of the water depth that I wanted, I told him “Just wait here and I’m going to dive. I’m going to come up but it’s going to take about two or three minutes. Just stay here.” I had a buoy and was attached to it with a string. Sure enough, I went down and disappeared. This guy couldn’t see me anymore because it was too deep and too dark at the bottom. And he freaked out. He just climbed on the buoy floats and wouldn’t let go. Even when I came back up, he just wouldn’t let go. He was completely freaked out. I had to literally drag him all the way to the coast with this tiny string.

So I guess it’s not for everybody. That’s why it’s difficult for me to explain it. Sometimes, when you have experiences that are shared by other people, it’s easy to explain or relate to because you understand them. But some of these activities are difficult to explain, like swimming in the ocean at night when it’s dark. I found with experience that most people don’t like that. But I guess it’s this element of the unknown or the feeling of being part of this force of nature and relying on my own strength against it. It’s the same when you hike a mountain and there’s a sheer drop. Because I love it so much, I have involved other people many times in my life who then ended up hating me for that. So that’s why, eventually, the best trips I had like this were when I was by myself because then I didn’t have to share these experiences. When I went to Namibia recently, at some point I just went off to the middle of nowhere, as far as I could get. You stop and it’s just yourself and nothing else. It’s weird because you think, “If the car breaks down here, I’m done for.”

It’s a feeling that resets me. You always think you can reason your way out of things and it’s nice to know that you can’t.

The nature of that mental experience in these moments is interesting. Is it something like unity with nature for you? Is it terrifying or enthralling?

I guess I try to reach the point where I’m terrified. It’s hard for me to achieve, in a sense. I put myself in that position precisely to control that emotion. Sometimes, being terrified is what kills you. If you’re doing free diving, if you’re at the bottom of the ocean on one breath and you panic, that’s when you burn all your oxygen and you die. So you can’t do that. I like to be in this situation because you’re getting into a state of flow. You’re in a state where you’re not thinking but actually, that kind of control over your emotions actually engages your rational thinking, although in a different way. You have to be the master of your own emotions. But at the same time, you really feel that it’s a weird homeostasis between the two.

You’re a lover of motorcycles. Does that fall in this category of activity for you?

Yeah, motorcycling is. A few months ago, I moved to Miami and I didn’t even have a place to stay. But I had already bought a motorcycle. That was the first thing, all I had was the motorcycle. One of the appeals to me about moving to Miami was the fact you can ride a motorbike without a helmet. That is strange to say, especially when most people who know me know that I’m very rational. I know that on the statistical level, that is high risk. And it’s almost like you just ignore it. I feel confident on a motorbike since I started riding when I was very young and I kind of got all the risky behavior out of the way then. So when I ride the motorbike now, I’m actually a safe driver because I understand the risks.

But originally, when I started using the motorbike, it was with stuff like dirt biking off-road in the forest and having to clear obstacles. Then by necessity, you always crash, you always fall, and you always are in uncontrolled situations where you’re just flung away. I don’t do that anymore because I’ve lived in cities basically since I was 18, so it’s difficult to get to that. But the passion for the motorbike remains. I’ve done lots of long-distance travel. I used to go every year from London to the south of Italy with my motorbike. For me, riding the motorbike is a meditation. I just go and ride in the evening as an activity. At that moment, I’m engaging my amygdala, I’m engaging my reptilian brain, and I’m engaging my fast thinking in an automatic way. That takes up some of my brain power and focus. That’s why I also like driving, for example. I like to be focused on the activity of driving. I’m trying to achieve different mental states.

One of my mentors used to say that thinking is the most powerful drug but the problem is the uptake energy. With the drug, you’re just taking it and there’s almost no effort. You just get the high, you get the effect. But with thinking, you’re having to invest the energy to get the dopamine going.

It’s mysticism without going into the desert, where you have to face the specter of death. Was there ever a near-death experience for you?

There have been situations in which I’ve been without water for a prolonged period of time. And that is definitely a humbling experience. You don’t need a long time without water before you start feeling really bad.

I also had a situation on the motorbike. One day, I was riding in the south of Italy. And because I lived in the UK then, my brain suddenly switched to riding on the wrong side. I was thinking about something else. And suddenly, I didn’t realize there was a car coming up in front of me. This car swerved just at the last second, I don’t know how, and nothing happened. After that, obviously, the adrenaline is pumping and you think “I could have been dead now.”

But what I got from that experience surprised me: I felt like I hadn’t learned anything. I was thinking about it: “Wow, this is one of those moments where I could have been literally dead. And I’m alive. What have I learned from that?” You hear people say, “I should have been dead and my life has changed now.” I didn’t experience that. I had it happen that I was climbing a mountain. I took the wrong route on the rocks and suddenly I realized I had one centimeter of rock that I was standing on and I could fall and die. Then I managed to get out of it. But I never had that introspective moment. Maybe it’s because I proactively put myself in that position.

And that’s how our brain is wired, actually. It’s a well-known fact that people pursue adrenaline more and more because their brain is suddenly hijacked into this wiring. It reinforces the fact that you survived and so now you’re getting a reward out of that activity because you get that adrenaline. It’s like the people who go on a tour of war and then they survive that extreme adrenaline—they just want to go back. Your brain is suddenly hijacked. Obviously, I’ve never done anything as extreme and I feel like I’m within the bounds of understanding what’s good and bad for me. The kinds of activities I seek are always within a certain limit but there are recurring themes in what experiences I seek and in the extreme environments.

You mentioned the desert. I like that because the desert is definitely my favorite type of environment for eliciting these kinds of feelings. The desert and the ocean. Anything that’s barren or has this undertone of death.

Many people want to die at home in their beds. Some maybe want to die on a great adventure. Do you have a philosophy of death—of that final outcome?

I think about death often, almost every day.

Memento mori.

Yeah. I like to bring up that everybody dies. Or sometimes, even joking when people are complaining about something. I say, “Well, you can always call it a day.” You don’t have to do any of this, you know? And people who don’t know me first think that’s kind of morbid and weird. But then they kind of get it. They know where I’m coming from because this is out of a deep appreciation of life—for what it is and its transient nature. Dying is always an option.

And in fact, it is the unavoidable option, eventually. It’s always good to remember that. For me, what I’m grateful for most of all is existence itself. Rare doesn’t even begin to define it, this human-centric vision of the world. But just because we exist, we assumed that that’s a normal thing. 

A recurring topic in the kinds of literature and philosophy youve discussed is immortality. Sometimes, its the immortality of the soul. If youre a Homeric hero, its eternal fame. Do you see any immortal aspect of life?

Early on in life, I came across this notion in the skeptic philosophers that one shouldn’t be afraid of death because your existence and death are mutually exclusive. That made instant sense to me. For most of my life, I never really related to that very human desire to be remembered past our lifetime. It seems so irrelevant to me because I won’t exist anyway. I guess I’m very pragmatic when it comes to that. I don’t have the desire to be remembered. When I don’t exist, I don’t exist.

If I have to say what I’m more inclined toward, it’s this kind of thinking. You can think in a more spiritual way, that we’re all part of the great oneness of everything. And it kind of makes sense if you think about it: we are made of matter, we are just the rearrangement of it, and we go back to it. When you think of the cosmos, you reach those depths of thought that almost make your heart afraid because you’ve understood something. For me, the most recurrent one is the classic moment when you stargaze at the universe and you realize how weird it is that matter arranged itself in such a way that it eventually gained self-consciousness. I am an expression of that, looking up at the stars. I’m an expression of this consciousness, which is a continuum. Life was formed in a simple way: nature learned how to store information. And that is the inception of consciousness if you think about it.

You can even take it a step further and say, “Well, the moment in which matter is formed is a kind of expression of consciousness because something that didn’t exist before, exists now.” You know, it’s like a different form. You can take it all the way back to the entropy fluctuations, the quantum fluctuations—what is that? It’s definitely a continuum, right? I’m not a subscriber to the ideology that there is a qualitative jump at some point that forms consciousness. I believe in consciousness as an emergent property of whatever is happening within us.

And because it is an emergent property, you can’t extract it and separate it from actual material existence. Because of that, I recognize that oneness. When I’m looking at the stars, I am the universe looking upon itself. That is the only meaning of life that I can see. I don’t have to give it any other meaning. It doesn’t matter, you know?

Philosophies of death are interesting because they end up being a testing ground for what your philosophy of life gained you. When Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades, he praises the eternal glory that Achilles has won in his life of battle. But in response, Achilles’s shade replies that he would prefer to be a wretched serf in the land of the living than lord of all the dead.

The idea of Achilles lives, but Achilles himself doesn’t.

What should people focus on if theyre trying to cultivate their own life or the heights of their own aspirations?

I think what many people nowadays forget—there is a lot of this destructive mentality going around—is that we experience the universe and life via our own existence. Our perception of the world is tied to our physical existence. This is why I’ve always been such a big advocate of cultivating your body and mind and I’ll never tire of repeating that. People ask what your purpose in life should be. Is it the pursuit of happiness? There are so many different things that one can think of. 

But I like to always think that every day should be dedicated to improving yourself. You, as an entity, are the whole universe as far as you are concerned. So that’s why I like to invest time into improving myself every day. It’s a never-ending, lifelong pursuit. Learning, bettering yourself, and thinking. It’s not tied to external things as much. I know that nowadays people always want actionable things. That’s why I boil it down to this. Why am I reading this book today? Why am I learning how to paint? Why am I doing anything on any day? It’s for improving yourself in some way. And therefore, your whole life is improved. You’re given this one existence, which is very rare. I like to give value to this individual instance of existence, which is all you can control.

I also believe, on a practical level, in the importance of mindfulness and presence. Nowadays, it’s become very popular but in a different way. It has become saturated, with all these meditation apps. 

You practice mindfulness so you can come up with a better pitch deck. Its become a product all its own.

I want to really define what mindfulness is. Meditation is a simple thing. It’s not engaging in impulsive thinking for a second or putting yourself in a non-negotiable situation. Sitting and watching a sunset. Taking time for yourself. Like, that’s all there is. It’s not this overthinking about breathing until you’re unconscious. Then it just becomes an extra thing.

Sometimes, you need to be more focused on what you are doing today to be better at something. What are you learning today? It’s constant because your mind is also a muscle. People think they’re learning when they are in school and that’s it. But your brain uses a lot more energy than your body. So maybe I’ve worked out one hour a day and I’m learning for two hours a day and I’m practicing some motor skills, or something. But it has to be a natural thing where you feel like you really need it.

And then everything else comes as a consequence. The whole first half of this conversation was about the interdisciplinary approach to life and how anything you do can benefit another aspect of your life. I discovered this accidentally. I wasn’t studying engineering because I thought it would help me in fitness. I wasn’t doing modeling because I thought it would help me in my career. But because I always had this drive, I really wanted to learn what the best way to be fit is and what the best strategy for modeling is. What are the elements?

Always thinking about what you’re doing, that’s what mindfulness is. You’re engaged in what you’re doing. I love traveling and I come back having learned something because I took the time to think about it. I think this is the most actionable thing. Always try to learn something and improve yourself. And it sounds simple, but the simplest things are always the best.

Photographer: Dylan Nine
Model: Pietro Boselli
Producer: Matt Ellison
Art Direction: Asimov Collective
Assistant Producer & Stylist: Elena Sullivan
Assistant Producer & Stylist: Eva Sullivan
Photo Assistant: Benjamin Spiro
Styling Assistant: Simon Santo
Shot at VACO Studio in Miami, Florida