Let’s Meet Up And Live Forever: A Day With Bryan Johnson In Brooklyn

“If you’re wondering if you’re in a cult, you are,” Bryan Johnson, the 46-year-old tech executive best known for spending millions trying to be biologically equivalent to an 18-year-old, told a group of about 150 people encircling him. 

It was Saturday, February 17, just past 11 a.m., and we were at a Gowanus rock-climbing gym. The event was New York’s first meet-up for “DON’T DIE,” a group ostensibly for people that endorse Johnson’s mission of optimizing human health and indefinitely delaying death. 

It was also the first of three events for the day: rock climbing in the morning, then a “private gathering & thoughtful conversation” in the early evening, and finally, a “dance party” from 9 p.m. to midnight.

Some important context: Johnson is an ex-Mormon who claims that he cured his depression and reversed his aging by creating the “Protocol.” It combines an extremely disciplined lifestyle with an expensive collection of food and powders. Johnson designed the Protocol by using himself as a human guinea pig, and quantifying every single aspect of himself in order to optimize it. He now heads a new company called Blueprint, which sells health food people can use to do the Protocol themselves. He’s also grabbed headlines for doing “penis rejuvenation therapy” on himself and closely tracking his nighttime erections. 

Johnson was joking about leading a cult. While he markets his products as part of a mission to literally cheat death, he told the crowd his aims were more modest. “The goal is to get you to eat better and to sleep more,” he said.

Johnson’s pitch is simple—follow me, do what my algorithm says, and you will have more control over your life and death. It’s clear that the man relishes the spotlight, and can gather a crowd. But the attendees, often struggling with anxiety about the future, clearly wanted something more. Throughout the day, the conversations with him revolved around a central question: If they do live forever, what then? Is the point to build a better world? Or just defer death?

Johnson (center in black t-shirt) readies to pose for a group photograph (Hell Gate)

When I arrived at the rock climbing gym, the previous night’s snowfall was still mostly white and untrodden. About 10 people stood in line out front.

I started chatting with the guys at the back of the line. At first I thought they’d come together, but it became clear that they’d just met. 

One guy, a white guy in his late 20s wearing shorts and knee-high compression socks, told the group that he doesn’t follow the Protocol strictly. But he has fasted for as many as 5 consecutive days. 

Inside, only about 10 people were climbing. The rest, at least 100 at that point, were wandering around or eating the free “Nutty Pudding” (it was sweet but oddly claylike in texture).

Bryan Johnson was at the center of a mass of people, who had congregated near some exercise machines. He’s about 5 foot 6, and looks remarkably like a Madame Tussauds wax figure. He has a shiny upper forehead, hairless arms, perfect posture, and short, thin, brown hair. 

Fans were approaching him one at a time. A guy next to me, a 25-year-old software engineer named Alden, said he was only here out of curiosity. 

“I just want a picture with you,” Alden said, beaming, when he got his moment with Johnson.

“Oh, okay!” said Johnson. 

After he got the picture, Alden turned to leave, but then changed his mind. “Actually, I do have one question.” There are horrors unfolding in Gaza, he said. The planet is dying, and there’s a nonzero risk of nuclear holocaust. So, what then? What’s the goal of being alive?

“It’s to remove the desire for holocaust,” Johnson said, not blinking. “Become the problem.” He pivoted to the DON’T DIE sales pitch: “DON’T DIE starts with the self… don’t drink, don’t smoke.”

Alden interrupted, reminding Johnson of the question. But Johnson stayed on message. “Hopefully, DON’T DIE is gonna step up and say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do,'” he said. 

When I asked Alden he thought of Johnson’s answer, he said he respected it. “I may not have liked his answer,” he said. “But he seemed authentic.” 

Blueprint products displayed at the climbing gym (Hell Gate)

At around 11 a.m., Johnson gathered everyone and delivered a brief monologue. He dropped the cult line I mentioned earlier. 

After leading a breathing exercise, he asked people to share some details about where they are in life.

“Raising little children is very hard,” said a white woman who looked to be in her 40s or 50s. “I have very little time for myself.” She said she’s “almost waiting to get older,” for the kids to grow up, to have more time for herself.

“I’ve always thought that aging was unacceptable, since I was a little kid,” a white guy in his 20s said. “I’ve just concluded this year that there’s a whole community of people who feel the same way. I’m excited that we can do this together, and not alone.” Johnson tells the crowd that this man is a brilliant researcher looking at aging on the cellular level. 

“I was recently laid off, and mostly that was devastating, but that’s given me a chance to sit back and realize that I have control over what happens to me,” another woman said. She was a Black woman in her 40s or 50s. “I can do this.”

“Yes you can,” Johnson responded.

One young woman said that Blueprint inspired her to freeze her eggs. Another young woman, a nurse, said it hurts to see that “95 percent” of the cases she treats are preventable. One woman said that she began the Protocol last year, and has since lost 80 pounds and cured her depression. Her story was met with rapturous applause.

“I never wanted to die!” one woman said, to laughter. “And I’m so excited to be a part of this community… this is the next big thing, this is the next billion-dollar company.”

“Where are the old people?” another woman asked to slightly uncomfortable laughter. “I’m sixty-six.” She had a point. The vast majority of the people in the room were under 50. 

Afterwards, I started chatting with Alden, one of Johnson’s cameramen, and Dimitri Apollonsky, who had recently moved back to New York after starting his own marketing firm and traveling the world for two years. 

At some point, a woman in her mid-twenties joined us. She had no makeup, thick eyelashes, and a distant look in her eyes. We learned her name was Beatrice. She said she’d learned about Johnson through her friends, who told her that she’d like him.

“I’m obsessed with death,” Beatrice said. She could tell Bryan was too. 

Beatrice said she was ex-Orthodox Jewish. She said she’d lived in a seminary in Jerusalem, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and studied “existential despair” in college. She currently works in cybersecurity, and she was flying to Slovenia later that day to work on a film project. 

Beatrice said that one of her hobbies is singing and songwriting. She recited the lyrics to one of her songs.

“It’s about how we don’t have the language to warn future humans about where we store nuclear weapons and nuclear waste,” she said. “And my ex.”

Later, Beatrice said that she had written Johnson a letter, typed up and printed that morning. She was working up the courage to give it to him. 

On her way out, Beatrice told me she’d delivered the letter. Happy tears streamed down her face. She gave me an extra copy, which I read after she left. The beginning was familiar: her obsession with death, her travels, and her search for meaning. She added a few observations about Johnson.

“You are extremely well spoken; your mind is a gift,” she wrote. “But I think you isolate yourself in all your intellectual glory. You miss out on engaging people who can’t understand your lingo. You attempt to mend the gap with your penis jokes. It half works.” 

At the end of the letter, she asked for a job. “To be blunt, you are the only person I can envision myself working for,” she wrote. 

The crowd at the “thoughtful conversation” (Hell Gate)

There was a few hours between rock-climbing and the “thoughtful conversation.” It was in a random Williamsburg building, one of those places where you can’t tell if it’s an Airbnb, an event space, or someone’s actual apartment.

There were more than 100 people inside, and the space was not big enough for that. Thankfully, everyone sat down once the discussion started, giving people enough room to breathe.

Sitting on the floor listening to Johnson (Hell Gate)

Johnson began with a thought experiment. “So imagine you have access to an algorithm that gives you the best physical, mental and spiritual health of your life,” he said. “In exchange for achieving this, you do what the algorithm says. You eat when it says to eat, you eat what it says to eat. Would you say yes?”

“Yes, if it’s a benevolent AI,” said one man. “Because if we continue on a path following our innate desires, we’re going to look like Wall-E.”

One woman, who spoke with a European accent, said no because she values “freedom” too highly.

“I would say yes,” another man said. “As you said, you spent much of your life being really down. I have too. And the valences of being up in a healthy way are so beautiful. And we rarely ever touch those states. And if I could be in those states most of the time in a healthy way, that’d be amazing.”

The conversation, which was more like a Q&A, lasted about 90 minutes. Multiple times, people tried to get Johnson to explain why life was actually worth living. But he stuck to the talking points.

“I would argue that dying is the biggest adventure, because you don’t know what’s out there,” an older blonde woman said at one point. She sounded unsure. 

“Yeah, report back,” Johnson replied, to an uproar of laughter.

One man who appeared to be in his 30s asked how we can assume that the future will be better than the present. “My personal opinion is I don’t know,” Johnson replied.

Another guy cut straight to the point. “Are you saying that we should adopt as our purpose ‘DON’T DIE,’ or as a means to achieve some other purpose? And if so, what other purpose?”

“I’m saying, ‘DON’T DIE’ is the only thing,” Johnson said. Humanity faces existential risks, Johnson continued, like nuclear holocaust and malevolent artificial superintelligence. He argued that these risks effectively dwarf any search for meaning in living.

“This is on our doorsteps, and it disrupts everything you care about,” Johnson said. “Everything you’re planning on in life is going to be disrupted by this thing.”

About 80 minutes into the conversation, a voice spoke from the back. It was Tova Sterling, the owner of the company catering the events that day. 

Sterling said that before her current job, she was a “death doula.” It involved preparing and comforting people close to death, and sometimes organizing “waking funerals” for people that are still alive. She said she “learned so much about living” in that job.

“I contrast it with this, where there’s a bunch of people in the room, and they’re talking about not dying,” she said. “Even though the waking funerals and this party are talking about the same thing, I liked the first one better. Because one was a celebration of life. And there’s something about this room that feels very fear-based.”

Sterling was one of a handful of people who gave Johnson real pushback. There was definitely some hero worship in the room.

“I’m guaranteed to die in the most ridiculous way possible,” Johnson said at one point, to a chorus of laughs. “By a bus, choking on a pill…”

“You’ll be our martyr!” one man yelled.

After the conversation ended, people mingled for about 30 minutes before walking over to GHOST, the site of the dance party. 

On the way over, I chatted with two startup founders and Toby Shorin, a blogger. At one point, I made a comment about how Johnson’s Protocol is only feasible for rich people. (The monthly cost of following the Protocol exactly is $1,684.50.) I asked, what does this say about who can, or deserves to, live a long life? 

“You’re missing the point,” Shorin said, slightly upset. We had shared several impressions of Johnson, particularly how he functions like a prophet, but he sharply diverged with me when I brought this up. 

Later, as I was writing this story, I asked Shorin to clarify what he thought the point of Johnson’s message was. He said that “a ‘rich white tech guy’ lens” doesn’t capture Johnson’s philosophy as a transhumanist, which can appeal to economically diverse audiences.

“His metaphysics is completely immanent,” Shorin said. “There is no life after this, there is simply living, the body, power, and what man can accomplish.”

I thought about AJ, a tech worker I met shortly after the group discussion ended. He said that he grew up in war-torn Bosnia, which affected his views on life and death. “You don’t need a reason to be alive,” he told me.

GHOST is an expensive, application-only gym designed to look like a nightclub. In this case, it had actually been converted into a nightclub.

About 20 people (mostly men) were dancing enthusiastically in front of a boxing ring, which served as the DJ booth. Johnson was among them, wearing a version of a “DON’T DIE” t-shirt that he had fashioned into a tiny crop top, shuffling to the music.

There were three options for non-alcoholic drinks, all free. I had the “Autonomous Self,” which the menu claimed had an “aphrodisiac pineal gland activator.” If it did that, I didn’t notice. It tasted like fruit juice. 

The conversations were pretty light; death didn’t come up. I talked to Alaina Randazzo, who I met in the bathroom at the rock-climbing gym. She’s an aspiring fashion influencer and the subject of a 2022 Business Insider article about the 80-square-foot “micro-apartment” she lived in at the time.

I ran into another man I met earlier, a tech worker in his 30s. He’d approached me at the rock-climbing gym and asked, “Are you interested in Longevity?” with the zeal of a missionary. 

I didn’t talk to Johnson until about 11 p.m., when less than two dozen people remained. I introduced myself, then asked the question that kept coming up that day. 

“So let’s say you live longer, what then?” I asked. “Is ‘DON’T DIE’ a means to an end? Or an end in and of itself? Is there a meaning, or something more that you wanted your followers to take away?”

He stared at me vacantly for a few moments. “Why don’t you send me an email?”

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Erasmo Fetzer