No one else can truly know what it’s like to be you. To think the things you think. To feel the emotions you feel (the way that you feel them). The things that get under your skin. The worries that play on repeat. Your hopes, dreams, and convictions about how the world works.
Our distant human predecessors had emotions and thoughts before they had language to describe them. The structure of our brains reflects that developmental history. There’s a whole complex of feelings and thoughts we have inside ourselves before we can put words to it. It can be extremely difficult to formulate them into something sayable or writeable.
But it can also be extremely fulfilling. Words give tangibility and translatability to our internal lives. In conversation or typed on a page, there’s a shared point of reference.
Other media do this, too—songs, sculptures, architecture, and more. They each in their own way provide something that other people can reflect on and respond to. This is how we build connections and relationships with other people. And how we make sense of the world together. One person says things, write things, plays things, and makes things. Others listen, feel, examine, or respond.
We’re all on this peculiar blue rock in the universe—trying to process what’s going on and what our part is in all of it. We’re all trying to figure it out. It’s exciting and terrifying and full of potential.
I love what prolific film composer Hans Zimmer said in a recent interview about “getting closer.”
I’m writing one long score. It’s called my life. How many deaths have I written? How many kisses have I written? Each one, I try to do it differently. I try to get closer to the reality. I try to get better at it. “Better” is the wrong word. I’m trying to find out what’s hidden from me and what’s hidden from the audience. I’m trying to peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.
Peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.
Whether it’s words, or music, or something else, we’re all trying to get a little closer to reality through the course of our lives. What we know about ourselves, and what we know about the world.
I look back on some of the things I’ve written or said, and they make me cringe. I butchered sentences. I lacked perspective. Because people change. The way we articulate ourselves changes. Our sense of what’s right and good and beautiful changes. That’s part of being human, too.
Those changes and the drive to get closer are crucial to living well together. We’re dependent on others to fully see and understand. We need other people to show us our blind spots, where we haven’t taken things far enough, and where we’re way off track.
The path of getting closer is an imperfect, in-progress one, because we’re imperfect, in-progress creatures. Our vantage points are limited—conditioned by what makes each of us us. No one person is going to get things exactly right. Our efforts to communicate what we know about ourselves and the world don’t always come out the way we wanted. That’s what makes getting closer that much more rewarding. Over time, you can get closer. You end up in a different place than where you started. And there is always room to go deeper and wider.
It’s much more interesting to live life trying to discover what’s hidden from you. To get to the essence of what all this is. Throughout each day, in everything you say and make, and with every opportunity you have to hear perspectives outside your own purview. Each of us has things to share that will bring us closer to the world as it is—and closer to one another.
You have a remarkable imagination. Did you know? Imagination isn’t limited to the small percentage of humans that design rides at Disneyland or write bestselling novels. We all rely on the flexibility, keenness, and creativity of our imagination to make it through the day. Arranging and rearranging your schedule to get everything done. Mentally rehearsing how a conversation with a significant other will go. Planning a dish to cook that will fit in at a friend’s potluck (and thinking through the process of getting the ingredients and preparing it).
You are also a remarkable improviser. Improvisation can conjure images of a jazz musician effortlessly writing a melody on the fly or a comedian bringing the house down with jokes seemingly pulled out of thin air. But improvisation doesn’t require artists, stages, and audiences. We improvise in conversations with other people, in making our way through the surprises and challenges of parenting a child, while navigating the flow of highway traffic, and in getting a group of co-workers to complete a project.
All human beings, all the time, imagine and improvise. The two powers are inextricably linked. We each have an “improvising imagination” to creatively achieve the things we need to do and want to do. Stephen T. Asma’s illuminating and enjoyable book, The Evolution of Imagination, is all about how our improvising imagination works, how we got it, and how culture is shaped by it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in awhile.
After years and years of evolution, human beings now have a rich mental space–what Asma calls a “second universe.” The early human adaptations of anticipation and mimicry became layered with emotion and image-making, which became layered with language and self-consciousness. The second universe we now enjoy is a robust “environment of possibilities that exists concurrently with the stubborn physical world.” In it, we can run virtual simulations of the real world “offline.” What we want to say in an upcoming job interview. How the half-marathon this weekend is going to go. How we would have written the plot of the movie we just watched a little differently.
Our second universe is also a “repository of adaptive behavioral responses.” As we experience and learn while we grow, we come to acquire habits, information, and patterns that we can draw from. Chess players study an endless variety of moves–creating a mental encyclopedia of plays to watch for and use in a current game. Musicians and composers internalize scales, rhythms, and patterns of melody and harmony so that they have a rich foundation when performing and writing. All humans develop social cliches for small talk, attending meetings and concerts, and waiting in lines.
And the second universe is a sort of playground. It’s a space in which we daydream. Construct words, notes, and ingredients into stories, songs, and recipes of our own. Envision that we’re on the street in a place we want to travel. Play around with ideas and see how they fit together.
The mythological idea of imagination is wild flashes of originality as if from the heavens or a muse, or discovered in a state of ecstasy. But most of the time, imagination is a patient and deliberate process of trying, examining, and moving things around in the second universe of our minds. A process of taking perceptions, memories, ideas, images, and feelings, and making small tweaks and combinations of those existing things to create something new. If you deconstruct a favorite movie or song, you’ll likely discover it’s a clever blend of a handful that already existed.
Asma refers to this patient and deliberate use of our imagination as cold cognition. It has the benefit of time and conscious attention to run through simulations and new possibilities. Then reflection and revisions and reruns, on and on. Improvisation, on the other hand, is hot cognition. It’s reactive, instinctive, voluntary. In full-blown improvisation, you are simultaneously “composing and performing.” You don’t have the benefit of time to patiently think through several possibilities in your second universe, or stop halfway through the “performance” and start over.
In the most common improvisational situation, a conversation, once you say something the cat’s out of the bag. An insult, poor word choice, or incoherent sentence can’t be sucked back into your vocal chords. But by the nature of conversation, you also can’t leave the other person hanging for five minutes while you come up with the perfect next sentence. This is why conversations–depending on who it’s with and what it’s about–can be intimidating, stressful, and confusing. You have to rely on the repository of your second universe for facts about the person that will cater the conversation to them, cliched sentences you can modify for the moment, and shapes of previous conversations that you know had a good beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, you’re watching, feeling, and interpreting the verbal and non-verbal response of the other person. It tells you how your message went over and where to go next.
In a mostly involuntary and unpredictable way, when you’re in a conversation, you’re spitting out sentences with little or no time to form and revise them before they’re said. And then the other person responds and you–again, mostly involuntarily–interpret and analyze and say another thing. Back and forth, instinctively drawing from your second universe and absorbing feedback, until the conversation over. A conversation seems simple but is pretty damn impressive.
Our improvising imagination is what enabled human beings to survive over thousands of years and become the complex, creative people we are today. Some researchers think our biggest brain expansion occurred in the face of past climate change and the dynamic landscapes our ancestors found themselves in. “Reality is messy, always changing, open-ended, and relentlessly coming at you at hot speed.” We need hot and cold cognition to be able to survive and make it through the many situations and challenges we’re presented with every day.
Our improvising imagination has also opened up space to play and explore and seek understanding. It has given humanity everything from amazing films to Michelin-starred restaurants to inspiring attempts at describing the meaning of life. We all have tremendous capacity in our second universe for need and play. Whether it’s a conversation or something center stage, enjoy the adaptive creativity you have, and see where your imagination can take you.
If you’ve heard anything about “fake news” lately, you’ll know that in many ways truth has taken a backseat to other forces. Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth–“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—their word of the year. And with good reason. The maelstrom of partisan politics, clickbait, underfunded investigative journalism, misinformation,outright propaganda, and other obstructions has left many of us wondering where we can find something approximating what’s real and how we’ll know that it does.
It doesn’t matter what politicians and political ideology you affiliate with, your favorite sites and social media personalities, or what you wish was true. We should all see actual truth as a worthy pursuit. Even–and perhaps especially–if it challenges your beliefs and feelings. Living out of ignorance, incomplete or incorrect information, or deception doesn’t do any of us any good. What’s real is real whether we accept it or not. And often it’s extremely important that we understand what’s real as best as possible. Manmade climate change, for example, may lead to an inhospitable planet whether we know about it and acknowledge it or don’t.
The problem, though, is that every person, community, and organization is going to get at least some things wrong some of the time. Even in the most humble, unadulterated pursuit of the truth, no one has a God’s-eye view. No one sees the world with perfect clarity and absolute comprehensiveness. Your favorite, powerhouse news source is going to get it wrong at times. Your go-to social media know-it-all is going to post some significantly misinformed things. A bunch of likes, retweets, and shares doesn’t make it more plausible.
Any attempts at understanding what’s real, no matter how pure, are done so as human beings. As fallible, finite creatures. Sometimes our eyes, ears, and other senses let us down. Did I really see what I think I did? And even when they don’t, there’s only so far they can reach and so much they can process. I can only give a firsthand account of a space of maybe a block or two from wherever I am right now. Same for you. Same for every other person on the planet. If I’m here and I want to know what’s going on over there, I’m dependent on some kind of eyewitness–recollection, photo, video–because I’m not there experiencing it for myself and reflecting on my own perceptions of it. Each of us is fixed in a certain place and time. We each have a particular point of view.
This means that most things in the world are mediated and interpreted. Mediated because you experience the real world through either your own limited human faculties of sense and reason or the articulation of someone else’s (via a Facebook post, a cable news report, or a conversation, for example). We don’t have a direct connection to reality. Interpreted because mediation always has a point of view. A live news camera is pointed at some action and not another. The president at the podium giving a speech, not the random guy on the phone in the corner. And why did they choose to send someone out to the speech and not some other event?
Each of us is constantly sifting through an inordinate and overwhelming amount of information to try to fully perceive the world before us. When, though, someone has sifted in a Facebook post or a news report or a friendly conversation, they’ve chosen what’s included and what’s left out. They’re interpreting what details before them seem factual, important, and connected. What things together constitute an accurate account–the truth–of an event, research study, institution, etc. What’s included and why, or what’s left out and why have to be carefully scrutinized.
Truth, as it turns out, is fundamentally a matter of story and storytelling. Truth is a weaving together of perceptions, observations, and supposed insights into a bigger sort of framework or pattern. Into a story. “A set of facts in context,” as some have said. Stories are how we make sense of things. They are the means and the form we use for talking about what goes on in the world. Journalists, historians, scientists, and others tell stories in various kinds of media to try to inform the public. Friends, relatives, and strangers pass them around and comment.
The thing is, just like some fictional stories are better than others, some stories meant to encompass the world as it is are much better than others. Some are closer to reality. Some–deliberately or accidentally–are far from it. We get truth by comparing stories against each other and seeing which one seems to best fit the real world. In our limited humanness, that’s as close as we’re going to get to something objective.
So how can we tell one story is better than another, or that a certain story has the best fit? We’ll have to save that for next time. The truth is hard for humans. It’s going to take more than one post to figure this out.
In the moments after the Green Bay Packers lost the 2007 NFC Championship game, I sat in disbelief in my small, college apartment. Brett Favre, now in the Hall of Fame in 2016, inexplicably played like anything but a future hall-of-famer in his wintry final game as a Packer. The New York Giants, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, won the NFC Championship on an overtime field goal set up by a Favre interception–amplifying the finality and devastation of Packers fans like me.
What was the point of all this?–I wondered to myself. I had put off a paper that I should have been writing so I could glue myself to the television for a few hours instead. And I had invested several hours more watching, celebrating, and agonizing through the course of the whole season–believing that whatever turns and bumps along the way, the road would lead to a championship and corresponding elation.
But like so many sports teams in so many seasons, it didn’t end in ultimate victory. And instead of elation, I felt an odd combination of sadness, anger, sardonic amusement, and confusion. Sports are utterly meaningless, I decided. Who the hell gets so invested in this stuff? How did I let myself get so invested? Come next NFL season, I would not waste my time again spending hours in front of a screen watching my team play when I could or should be doing other things. Or allow myself to hope against hope that the Packers could overcome the statistical unlikelihood of them winning a championship that season either.
But when the season started again in the fall of 2008, I eagerly tuned in for as many games as possible, and have done so every season since. And now here we are the start of the 2016 NFL season, the most popular sport in America by far, with hope springing eternally for millions of fans that this will be their year!
Why do so many people care so much about sports?
In the context of society as a whole, sports teams and the fanaticism they generate do not have an obvious contribution to the common good–save for maybe a local economic bump or some additional jobs under the right conditions. Even then, most economic benefits go to team owners and a handful of other powerful interests. And surely the tens of millions of dollars spent on new sports stadiums–sometimes funded publicly–could be spent in a way that more directly benefits the communities in which they’re being built.
Sports fandom is less about the economic, and more about the existential.
I think my college paper avoidance is a clue. Given the choice between writing a paper (about a topic you don’t get to choose) or watching your favorite team in a playoff game, which one would most people pick? Sports is a form of escapism from the rest of life. However awful the workweek was, whatever political disaster is transpiring, whatever relational turmoil you’re experiencing, sports are there as an escapist outlet. The world can be tough and crappy. Here’s something that allows me to get away from that for a little while.
But hardcore fandom is more than just simply escapism from the everyday. Researchers have discovered that “…highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life.” Being a fan of a sports team–much like the group identification of a gang, religion, or attendees of Comic-Con–“leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.” Sports, and other groups with die-hard adherents, create a sense of transcendent belonging and purpose.
Even though I now live in California, as a former Wisconsinite, the Packers are typically the second thing I’m asked about after cheese. It’s a bit stereotypical, but finding out that I’m a Packers fan alerts others to symbols, sports rituals, and a type of community I’m likely to be associated with simply by being a fan.
As a fan of any team, you can be walking down the street amongst strangers and suddenly when you see people with a shirt or hat with your team’s logo you feel that you have “friends…that you feel connected to. You might not even know their names, but you feel as though you are unified with so many other people in the community.”
Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has discovered that there are nearly two-dozen well-being benefits commonly associated with sports fans. “Self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy”–and more–show a statistical correlation with degree of fan identification. The more one identifies with a team, the more one feels a sense of belonging, meaning, and enjoyment from it.
Does that mean that sports fanaticism is wholly good? Of course not. The economics of sports–the incomprehensible millions in player contracts, coaches’ salaries, advertisements, endorsements, and executive income–can spark indignation and outrage. Violence is always a possibility when fans and players experience similar blood pressure, testosterone, and other physiological increases. Players are regularly connected to on-field and off-field aggression: concussions, fisticuffs, playboy criminality, and serious domestic violence. The us versus them of fans–hooligans attacking others in the stands or the streets–can get carried away in the same sort of militaristic tribalism that has long been a part of our human history. And the absurd amounts of alcohol, chips and dips, red meat, and other calories consumed on gameday only add to the society-wide health complications of the Western diet. All of these are the things we often downplay or ignore as we aspire to keep sports a place of happy escapist belonging. That denial is when sports are at their most dangerous to individuals and society. Fandom can be fun and provide meaning while we, at the same time, work to address the dark side of sports.
So as the NFL season is set to begin, look behind the sexist commercials, showboating player celebrations, and cliches about winning and losing, for the larger pattern of identification, community, and meaning. Sports fandom is just one among many forms of escapism and finding purpose. And we’re all just looking for some kind of belonging and enjoyment in life–even if you think a little less of me now because you hate the Packers.
It was especially intriguing and thought-provoking because, ostensibly, this is an interview for a food website, with a former chef and current food television host, containing his thoughts on this or that bit of the current state of food. And yet, as the interview goes along, the conversation becomes about much more than just the latest ingredient fad or buzziest restaurant. It goes deeper into economics, creativity, globalization, class, history, relationships, politics, and more.
To be sure, the interview is not a one-hour retelling of all of human history through the lens of food. And it’s certainly not the first or even the best example of going beyond its immediate subject matter in a profound way. But I find it immensely fascinating and illuminating that an interview that starts out about one thing–food–quickly and regularly goes deep into many other things.
We live in a world that is incredibly specialized–perhaps even too specialized. We don’t just have athletes, doctors, and professors. We have wide receivers and punters; brain surgeons and orthopedic surgeons; professors of Western religions and professors of metaethics. Our entry points into the world–our personal areas of interest and expertise–are almost as numerous and unique as the number of people on this planet.
We each step out into the world and view it predominantly through the shaping and interpretive framework of those interests or fields of expertise. Andrew Zimmern’s entry point is food, and he can say and explain things about food and food culture that few others can. That alone makes for a compelling conversation. Food is awesome. Who doesn’t love finding out interesting things about it?
But as his Eater interview shows, you can’t really talk about food without talking about money and the exchange of value, globalization, human creativity, relationships, social structure, and the rest. Wherever we start, things eventually end up in the same place.
Where they end up is the core, essential humanity that exists behind every profession and area of interest. They end up at the heart of every person’s intentions, understanding, and experience.
You can start talking to an athlete about their career, their take on their sport, the business dealings of whatever league they’re in, their fan base, and the like. And sooner or later, things will either briefly or extensively broaden to dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; the power of mentorship, teamwork, and dedicated effort; the strength and fragility of the human body, and dealing with the inevitability of physical decline and retirement.
You can start talking to a physician about the curiosities and intricacies of their medical expertise. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the struggles of their work-life balance; the power and pride of healing; the agony and frustration of failed treatments and incurability; the daily encounters with patients at different stages of birth, life, and death, and supporting each person’s health to maximize their enjoyable time on earth.
You can start talking to a professor about the social construction of religion or morality in modern society. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the nature of belief and one’s own worldview; what’s right and wrong in the world–and what to do about it; the finitude of life and how to live it; and if there’s more to all of this than what we can observe.
Wherever you start, it eventually ends up in the same place.
Not in every single interaction. And not always for an extended period or in great depth. But if there is enough time and openness, things will eventually arrive at the universally human that undergirds everything else.
So the next time you listen to a podcast, or watch a news segment or sports match, or read a book, or talk with a doctor, co-worker, lawyer, or anyone else–watch and listen for the way things start to veer toward the universally human. And think about how that humanity is acknowledged, or supported, or suppressed, or thwarted, or celebrated by the entry point you started from (food, sports, medicine, philosophy, etc.).
To ask just a few:
How should we feel about a fish that’s essentially commonplace bait in Namibia but an expensive seafood plate in fancy urban restaurants?
What should be done about the head trauma NFL players experience and what that entails for their well-being later in life?
Why are issues of religion so often plagued by othering and scapegoating, anti-intellectualism, and hypocrisy?
Everything is connected to everything else. Food to politics. Sports to relationships. Academia to meaning. Our conversations begin with each person seeing the world from a slightly different angle. We’ve separated things out in thorough specialization, but really it’s all meant to fit together. As we take time with others, with various interests and expertise, we see more clearly the breadth and depth of our shared humanity. And the better we see our universality, the better we can pursue the common good together from the entry point that intrigues each of us most.
For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry
Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).
Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš,theIlliad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.
Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.
Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).
Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.
Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.
Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.
Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.
Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.
Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.
Do you ever feel like nothing makes any sense? Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time with your job or school or a relationship and wonder what am I doing with my life?
When that happens, what do you lean on? When everything feels like a chaotic, depressing swirl around you, what do you grab onto to steady yourself and move forward?
The reality is that there are moments in life–sometimes weeks or months at a time–when everything does feel like a disheartening mess and you’re not sure how to carry on. You’re stuck in a job that you hate. You find out someone close to you isn’t the person you thought they were. You develop a health complication that limits what you’re able to do.
No worldview can fully explain why situations like this happen to every human being that’s ever lived on this planet. The so-called problem of evil and the prevalence of pain, heartache, struggle, and loss have confounded even the most brilliant minds for millennia. There are no easy answers or magic solutions.
Which is not to say that there isn’t anything we can do about it. Surely some kind of footing is better than free-fall. Some kind of lifeline is better than drifting away in uncertainty, worry, and sadness. We each need to find our lifeline.
They’ll all be a bit different. For me, it’s my wife. No matter what else is going on, no matter how hard or bewildering things get, I find solace knowing that at least we’ll be going through it together. My wife is my constant, my lifeline, even as other things are continually changing and often confusing or too much to bear.
Maybe for you, your lifeline isn’t a person but a habit or hobby–like hiking, woodworking, or writing. Or something more contemplative or spiritual: books, videos, or meditative practices that help you explore meaning and your place in the world.
The times in our life of confusion, disappointment, doubt, and pain aren’t going away. These are the more difficult parts of being human, and there aren’t any easy or logical solutions to engineer them out of existence. We all must find our lifelines, and when you do you’ll at least have something constant you can come back to for relief and reflection in the midst an ever-changing and often overwhelming world.
It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.
Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.
For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.
Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.
Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.
Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.
How is such a post-work future possible?
First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.
Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.
But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?
Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.
Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.
A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.
A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.
There is perhaps nothing more quintessentially modern American than obsession with health. At a time when a majority of Americans are at least slightly overweight, it’s not a surprise that there’s a whole industry of supposed quick fixes–everything from foods processed to remove the “bad stuff” to the latest celebrity personal trainer trying to persuade you her workout program will get you her abs in a few weeks. Taking advantage of the desire for instantaneous self-improvement is a tremendous way to make money.
Do quick fixes work? Rarely. If it were that easy we probably wouldn’t have a national weight crisis. But new fixes are constantly being wheeled out and showered with confetti as the remedy for health happiness because we just can’t seem to achieve it with willpower.
And it’s not just with health that we struggle for improvement. Have you ever been awake in bed at night, or somewhere else contemplative, and wondered if you were meant to do something more with your life than you are? Have you ever had an idea for a work of art, a business, a charity, or a political reform? Did you embrace it with excitement and start working on it? Or did you dismiss it as something that you could never do?
What’s going on there? Like gravity, there is a force in the world that tries to yank you back down to earth when you’re passionate about making something take off. Steven Pressfield, in his excellent book The War of Art, calls this force Resistance.
Resistance can be subtle. It can gently nudge you into thinking, “Yeah, I will start that! But I’ll start it tomorrow.” And then it’s pushed to the next day, and the next day, and the next day. You feel pretty good because you think you’ve committed to something life-changing, but nothing ever actually changes.
Or Resistance can be blunt and painful. You may indeed start to improve your health, or make music, or begin a business, only to feel a wave of judgment and rejection from those who are close to you. Whether it’s because of jealousy, closed-mindedness, or something else, they can’t handle that you’re becoming different. What are you supposed to do when Resistance forces you into a choice between relationships and passion?
Resistance can take the form of the apparent quick fix or distracting escapism. Fad diets, get-rich-quick schemes, hooking up, substance addiction, binge-watching. They give you a bit of a result or a good feeling for a little while, but eventually, the effect fizzles out and you’re back to the beginning–probably more discouraged than when you started. It’s no wonder many of those things can be linked to depression.
If Resistance is so powerful, how can we possibly overcome it? As Pressfield sees it, we must become a professional at whatever our great passion is. The hardest part of any pursuit is not that we aren’t the world’s greatest artist, an expert on exercise and nutrition, or a graduate of the most reputable school (though doubting your qualifications is its own form of Resistance). No, the hardest part of becoming the person you’re meant to be is simply showing up over and over again and giving the work your best. Resistance does everything it can to prevent you from finding rhythm, traction, and growth.
The professional is the person who has committed to sticking to a regular schedule and showing up to throw themselves into it no matter what. It’s both incredibly straightforward and incredibly hard. Most people haven’t decided to become professionals in this way, and Resistance wins sooner or later. You decide to eat well and then your family gives you crap about how you think you’re better than them. You commit to working on writing music at 7pm, and Resistance whispers in your ear that a new series just dropped on Netflix that you can start watching instead.
Resistance got me with this post! It should have been out earlier in the day, but I got persuaded that it’s been a stressful and exhausting week and that I needed to sleep in this morning instead of writing at my usual time. Resistance is really good at rationalization.
Over time, though, as you begin to win a battle here and a battle there against Resistance, you become stronger and more adept at sticking to being pro. Every time you’re ready to do the work at 7am and pour your best into it, Resistance is forced to try a different tactic next time because you overcame it–even if you only wrote one sentence or one chord, or could only manage half the reps.
I strongly believe that we are all capable of the unique, the important, and the transformative. Learning to overcome Resistance in all the ways it will try to undermine and stop you is the path to becoming the person you’re meant to be.
It would not be surprising to find out that for most people busy has replaced good as the auto-response to a How are you?
All 168 hours in the week may not actually be blocked out with schedule commitments in your smartphone calendar, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. Some of that is surely the acceleration of life that unprecedented technological innovation has enabled. Until recently, we didn’t have to worry about things like creating laws about email cutoff times to prevent people from barraging each other with messages late into the night. Workdays had clean boundaries.
Some of the busyness may be purposefully self-inflicted. A number of artists and academics have wondered if we try to preoccupy ourselves with busyness to avoid confronting feelings of emptiness, mortality, or meaningless. Even if we know it’s exhausting or stressful, busyness is better than nothingness.
The problem is that busyness for busyness’ sake is just a different kind of meaninglessness: spinning your wheels instead of being parked and paralyzed. In its best form, we’re busy because we’re engaged in activity that’s worth doing. Work we love. Learning a new hobby. Training for a marathon. Cooking for the family.
But the good kind of busy, worthwhile activity, is still only half of a flourishing way of life. The other half is rest and disengagement. The most basic form, of course, is sleep. This is not a biological complication in need of a technical fix to eliminate it. Sleep is essential to our ability to function properly during waking hours. Yet many of us wear a badge of honor proudly proclaiming how few hours of sleep we think we can get by on. Even then, we shoot ourselves in the foot in the race to REM sleep by gluing our eyes to blue-screened devices (blue = clear skies of the daytime = be awake, brain!) right up until we lay our head down on the pillow. During the day, our bodies work hard to maintain periods of stable energy and then let us know when they need rest, but we hijack that cycle by consuming all sorts of uppers and downers: coffee, tea, energy drinks, supplements; cocktails, beer, wine, sleeping meds, and the like. Most of us can’t hear our bodies telling us when we can be exerting and when we should rest.
Activity and rest are the most fundamental set of complements of a well-rounded life. We need engagement, risk, and sweat; and we need disconnection, mindfulness, and sleep. If we’re primarily just one or the other our lives get out of sorts. Just activity: exhaustion and bewildering bustle. Just inactivity: melancholy, occasional self-loathing, and extra pounds of bodyweight.
There are several other complements that flow out of the foundation of activity and rest. Exercise and recovery. Work and time-off. Socialization and solitude. Teaching and learning. Being in the city and being in nature. Self-critique and self-love. And many others.
These are not antagonistic binaries. Rather, there’s a sliding scale for each set of complements from one to the other. So if purely active is the left edge of the active/rest scale, purely restful is on the opposite end. Since binaries, scale, and purely this or that probably reads like a whole lot of jibjab, take a look at it visually.
Depending on what’s going on in your life and the time of the day, you’re likely closer to one or the other end. If you’re purely active, you’re probably not reading this because you’re too busy and about to pass out from exhaustion. If you’re purely restful, you also are likely not reading this because you’re in deep sleep. The rest of us are somewhere a bit left of center (middle of the workday, in the midst of a workout) or somewhere a bit right of center (streaming a movie, browsing through cake blogs).
Life feels chaotic whenever we’ve been too far to one side for too long.
Because we don’t swiftly jump back and forth between really active and really restful like alternating electric current. It takes a while for your body to recover from a long day of work or other strenuous activity. You’re trying to mellow out, pick up carryout for dinner, and go put sweatpants on, but you’ve still got adrenaline and cortisol flowing and a high-strung mind. Your body is still active when you’ve hit a time to rest. It takes a little while to slide over on the scale.
The middle of the scale is the goal. It’s balance; well-being; stability and contentment. To find that balance requires rhythm. Rhythm is understanding where you’re lodged on the scale and what you need to do to bring you closer to the center. If you’re off-center to one side, you need the contrast of the other side. If you’re in a state of hyperactivity you need an equivalent form of rest. It’s like counterweights. Or better: like the dials on a stereo or equalizer in a music app. If there’s too much bass in a song, you turn the dial to increase the treble to compensate. If your life has too much bass (and let’s be honest, we were a little too all about that bass, no treble for a while, there) you need to counterbalance to bring things into equilibrium.
This is true for any of the complementary pairs that contribute to your well-being. Too much exercise: you need recuperative things. Too much work: you need a vacation or a staycation. Too much socialization: you need some solitude. Too much city: get out in the woods. Too much teaching and leading other people: crack open a book in a quiet place to learn something new for yourself. Too much self-critique: do things that encourage self-love. Too much connecting: time for a bit of digital detox. And, of course, they can all overlap and interconnect. Some need to counterbalance this way, some that. If you’ve been in a downtown workplace completing work on a smartphone (too much work, connection, and solitude), you should get out and go for a hike with some friends (out in the woods, digital detox, socialization).
On an average day, it’s easy to get caught up in one thing after the next. You drop off your significant other. Work gives you a handful of surprises to resolve. You realize it’s 3 hours past lunchtime so you stop at a sandwich chain or a convenience store. Life just kind of happens to you, and you set the alarm to get up and do it again tomorrow. But when you consider where you’re at on the different scales, you can start making a day or a week happen with some design. You start living with some intentionality, the way that will help you feel balanced and well. Finding rhythm gives you a gameplan, a beat, a flow. It gives you a guide for the thing or kinds of things you should do next—and after that, and after that.
This means that most things we might do on a regular day aren’t inherently bad, but they might be bad for you in that particular moment because of where you’re at on the scale. They’re not a counterbalance right now: they’re a chaos catalyst. If you had a cheeseburger and soda for lunch, and then have fried chicken and a few beers for dinner, you’re going to put your digestion and energy out of whack. You want to think about something lighter for dinner (can’t go wrong with some pho). But if you’ve been eating light all week, maybe it’s a good night to treat yourself to a bit of comfort food. Fried chicken and beer isn’t evil—it’s just indulgent—and you might be self-sabotaging if you’re already well into the comfort food side of the scale instead of the health-conscious one.
Nobody’s going to be a flawless balancer. If we all were perfectly in the middle of each of life’s scales, unicorns and rainbows would probably spontaneously appear. But they don’t, and we’re not. It’s OK. Remember, there’s a self-critical/self-love scale to try to keep balanced too.
If we’re at least trying to find rhythm there’s a good chance that we actually will a lot of the time, and we’re going to have some real well-being and contentment because of it. That’s a lot better than busying ourselves into the meaningless chaos we were hoping to avoid.