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Rabbit Holes 🕳 #32
From being dignified as a rule to what's enough, time billionaires, reclaiming life from work, and the achievement society
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Alright, enough of the admin stuff. Let’s get into this week’s Rabbit Holes:
Rabbit Holes 🕳
As always, here are five perspective-shifting ideas that I’ve come across lately, plus some fun extras. This week’s ideas are all (coincidently) centered around the topic of productivity and work-life balance. Enjoy:
#1 Being Dignified, As A Rule
“We’re more engaged while reading from a beautiful hardcover than from a computer printout, or in a lamplit armchair rather than a plastic patio chair. Wine tastes better out of a spotless wine glass than from a paper cup.
Perhaps we should have dignity foremost in mind whenever we do anything, because it’s an intuitive sense we all have, and it points the way to a thing done well.
It might sound like I’m equating my own aesthetic preferences to dignity. I like lamps and armchairs and wine, maybe you don’t. What feels dignified depends on the person, but we can always sense our own dignity, or lack thereof, in how we do a thing, even when nobody else is there to see it.”
“Technology tends to pull us away from this way of being, eroding dignity in the quest for speed, variety, or convenience. I find it more dignified, for example, to listen to music by playing a single album, rather than an AI-generated playlist. Instead of an infinite stream of algorithmically-similar songs, you get a coherent work as its artist intended. I have no vinyl collection, but anyone who does knows there is something spiritually superior about setting an LP onto a turntable rather than thumbing over to the same album on Spotify, sound fidelity aside.”
I’m sure some proportion of our modern malaise comes from this sort of technology-induced dignity loss. The more our tools automate once-manual actions, and the more we access them all through the same lifeless touchscreen, the less intentionality and resolve there is behind whatever we’re doing. Maybe some friction and formality is a good thing, because it keeps our values in charge of the action, leaving less to momentum.
Ultimately it’s a choice though, and the dignified way is there whenever you look for it.”
“Dignity isn’t only a matter of the tools, clothing, or the method with which you do a thing. It’s in the way of doing: the earnestness, the uprightness, the respect for the task and its doer.”
#2 What’s Enough?
“[Here is] a new productivity strategy: Micro-tasking. Whenever you have a free moment, do something productive.
Clear out some iMessages.
Pay your cell phone bill.
Queue up 3 tweets.
It’s the key to feeling in control. And on top of things.
Plot twist. I’m totally kidding. This is an absurd strategy. And if you’re stuck in a cycle of over-optimization, here are 5 questions to ask yourself.
Productivity culture always asks a flawed question: ‘HOW can I get more out of an activity?’ But it fails to ask the WHY.”
1. Why do I fear being ordinary? “This question sends chills down the spines of high-performers. High-performers want to be seen. You want to be celebrated. You want to be recognized. You, my dear high-performer, derive your self-worth, from achievement. Because being “ordinary” means losing the game of life. But who do you lose to? Ordinary is a relative game. […] And at the end of our days, we’re ordinary. We’re dust. Just specks in this infinitesimal universe.”
2. Why can’t I take a walk [/clean/garden/workout/…] without headphones? “I know. We need to be always listening to podcasts. Podcasts on AI. Podcasts on parenting. Podcasts on audience building. Why? Well since you fear being ordinary, then ‘Game On.’ Learning is how you stay relevant. It’s how you win. And once again, it’s how you fight the insurmountable tide. There’ll always be more to do. And even if you do it all – whatever that means – you’ll probably still be paralyzed by your own mortality.”
3. Am I playing the right game? “Now as your chase continues to be relevant, you find a game and try to win it. Go for partner at a law firm. Managing Director on Wall Street. YouTuber with 1 million subscribers. After all, that is how you defeat “Ordinary” and get all the accolades. But close your eyes and think about that future. Do you want to own the successful version of that career? Yes, the Wall Street financier does have 2 homes, 3 cars and sends their kids to $80,000 private schools. But they’re also tethered to email. They numb themselves to sleep with alcohol. They haven’t focused on their health in 20 years. You can win the game – but make sure you actually want the trophy.”
4. Who gets my best energy? “The promise of productivity is a better life. And your family and loved ones are the key recipients of this better life. Do you show up with love? Presence? Levity? Do you show up with a serious case of Intoxicating Joy? If the answer is no, something is wrong in the optimization. What’s the point of banging through 72 items on a to-do list if you’re just gonna be a grumpy parent?”
5. What makes me come alive? “An obsession with productivity leads to the Deferred Life Plan. You’re trading some time, work and mind space today – for the promise of a better tomorrow. [And yes] we all need to balance the requirements of today with the dreams of tomorrow. But we can’t delay the feeling of aliveness. (And don’t tell me that “once you get promoted, you’ll focus your efforts on aliveness.”) Aliveness is that delicious cocktail of purpose, love, energy and enthusiasm. You can’t find it in a podcast. You can’t find it on your resume. And you can’t find it in your bank account. […] And it certainly won’t come from squeezing in one more task.”
#3 Time Billionaires
“The phrase ‘Time Billionaire’ was coined by investor Graham Duncan: ‘A billion seconds is slightly over 31 years…when I see, sometimes, 20-year-olds—the thought I had was they probably have two billion seconds left. But they aren’t relating to themselves as time billionaires.’”
“The point: Time is our most precious asset. When you're young, you are literally a ‘time billionaire’ — rich with time. Too many people fail to realize the value of this asset until it is gone. Treat time as your ultimate currency — it’s all you have and you can never get it back. […] To me, being a ‘time billionaire’ isn’t necessarily about having the time, but about the awareness of the precious nature of the time you do have. It is about embracing the shortness of life and finding joy in ordinary daily moments of beauty.”
“Sam Harris has this idea that there’s a ‘last time’ for everything—you just never know when it will be. When I find myself rushing through moments, I think about it: How many more times will my son want me to pick him up or crawl on me in bed? Slow down — you’re gonna miss this.”
“When you’re 20, you probably have 2 billion seconds left. At 50, about 1 billion remain. How will you choose to spend yours? What are you saying NO to by saying YES?”
#4 Untethering Our Sense of Self-Worth From Work
“[…] We shouldn’t just work less because it makes us better workers. We should work less because it makes us better people.
[Frederick] Taylor believed our purpose on this earth was to produce economic value. He treated capitalism as a religion and described the average steelworker as ‘so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox.’ Never mind workers’ humanity; he saw their every action, their every second, as an opportunity to maximize corporate profits.”
“Although it’s easy to scoff at Taylor’s worldview, many of us in America—myself included—embody a hint of Taylorism in the way we work today. We use elevator rides and checkout lines as opportunities to tap out one more email or respond to one more Jira ticket. Silicon Valley worships at the altar of productivity and calls it ‘purpose.’ We praise those who pursue side grinds and passive income strategies — as if the 8 to 10 hours we give to our employers each day aren’t enough. And we tether our sense of self-worth to our output.
But the real benefit of working less isn’t that it gives us space to pick up a side grind or to ‘recharge’ for when we’re back on the clock. The real benefit is that it allows us to pick up our kids from school and have dinner more often as a family. Working less makes us better friends and neighbors. It allows us the space to exercise regularly and to read for pleasure, and to create art that no one has to see.
Unsurprisingly, according to the OECD, the countries with the greatest work-life balance map closely to the countries with the greatest life satisfaction. Put simply, working less allows us to be fuller versions of ourselves.
With a work-centric existence, we don’t just give our best hours to our jobs, but our best energy, too. It’s no wonder that when we get home—or switch from the work laptop to the personal laptop—we often can do little more than turn on Netflix. Nothing against Netflix, but finding meaning outside of work requires active forms of leisure. It requires us to do things. And in the words of Esther Perel, too many of us bring the best of ourselves to work and bring the leftovers home.”
#5 The Achievement Society
“At any given moment, there are a dizzying array of potential ideas or projects I could work on. How does one decide what to do now and what to do later? How does one keep from trying to do #AllTheThings at once? And why does this feel like such an existential crisis? Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic but the angst many of us feel—myself included—around these questions is real.
It’s an archetypal experience of the 21st-century economy. We have so many options that choosing always feels like a loss — a loss of opportunity, of possibility, of security.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that we live in an ‘achievement society.’ Instead of being kept in line through the discipline of institutions or the control of surveillance, society is organized through a plethora of possibilities. All of those possibilities don’t necessarily add up to more freedom, though.
Opportunities present themselves more like imperatives than options.”
“But below the surface, ‘choice’ [has] become a new paradigm for productivity. While in a disciplinary society, we should work hard to earn a good living, the achievement society exhorts all the things we can do to earn a living. The disciplinary society reminds us that we should buy a house in the suburbs, have 2.5 children, and serve on the PTA. The achievement society encourages us to explore all the possible ways we might live, love, and serve.
Han writes, ‘The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should. Therefore, the social unconscious switches from Should to Can.’
That can kept me in line growing up. It kept me achieving all As. It made me pursue excellence in sports and then music. Can convinced me to fill my college semesters with an ungodly number of credits. And if that sounds like Can is just another form of Should or Supposed-to, that’s because it is. Han says the Can does not “revoke” the Should. Can simply becomes a better, more efficient way to discipline our behavior.”
“[…] That’s not to say we’d be better off with fewer choices! But rather, the perception of unlimited choice obfuscates how we are guided into outcomes that continue to uphold the status quo even in their variety.”
“Han asserts that our contemporary psychic maladies [anxiety, depression, burnout, ADHD]… result from an ‘excess of positivity.‘ […] What he means is that, in different ways, each condition might be seen as a product of the “inability to say no.” “They do not point to not-being-allowed-to-do-anything [Nicht-Dürfen],” he writes, “but to being-able-to-do-everything [Alles-Können].””
“Byung-Chul Han sees the self-harm inherent to living in the achievement society. We compete with ourselves, he writes. I succumb ‘to the destructive compulsion to outdo’ myself over and over. ‘This self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results.’ Han’s work reminds us that it’s not choice or opportunity that’s the problem. It’s the way we let the multitude of choices and opportunities in front of us hijack our mindfulness. We stop thinking critically about our options and succumb to their influence.”
» | Managing Mental Health in the Achievement Society by
Live map showing real-time wind energy generation in the UK
Another interesting book: Flourish - Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency by Sarah Ichioka & Michael Pawlyn
🚿 Shower Thoughts
That’s it for this week!
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