We are too inspired
We'll never get do most of what we wish to do
I want to rail against the conventional wisdom that "you can achieve anything you put your mind to." Indeed, it is true that exposing people to all they are capable of helps greatly when confronting limiting beliefs, but I fear that this ever-present exposure to all that one COULD pursue is doing more harm than it is good. A growing issue of the modern day is that we are too inspired.
I recently had a conversation with my brother where we talked about the content he consumes. He is a really smart kid and makes an intentional effort to use the tools at his disposal in a manner that is edifying, yet even with this level of intention he expressed a sense of overwhelm from the amount of advice there is out there. Every social media influencer seems to have a great idea about how you should live your life, and their ideas are marketed such that it feels like you'd be an idiot if you didn't follow along. Even those who are deliberate in their curation of quality content often end up submerged in a sea of contradictory opinions. It doesn't matter how high quality the ocean of ideas you're engulfed in is, consume enough and you're destined to drown; In this way, we are too inspired.
Our constant stream of inspiration often results in a never-ending backlog of tasks that need to be attended to; this gives rise to another problem: the tendency to perpetually defer that which matters to us most towards an ever-receding horizon. We lie to ourselves, saying "I'll get around to that project I care about just after I finish answering these emails; I'll get around to doing that hobby I cherish just after I finish this task that my manager assigned; I'll make time to see my family when I've finished my book list!" It's become increasingly apparent to me that a prerequisite to completing important tasks is to acknowledge the fact that most of what you wish to do will never get done. Are we then hopelessly destined to fail? Yes, actually, but that isn't such a bad thing. Tim Ferris once said that to be successful in the modern day one must "Let the small bad things happen to make the big good things happen." Making time for what matters necessarily means that some people will be disappointed, some tasks won't be attended to, and some goals will never be completed – maybe that is ok.
Much of the suffering that we experience from having "too much to do" stems from the idea that one day we'll be done. Done with our responsibilities, done with the need to work, done with any external pressure. You see this in the idea of "early retirement," a sentiment that is currently impressed on the psyche of the collective unconscious. Similarly, the advent of remote work is making us more fervently believe in the idea that you can become wholly free from any shackles. The presumption that underlies this dream is flawed, however. It is not freedom that enriches us, but rather being bound to the right things. All of the richest parts of life necessitate the curtailing of one's agency. Romantic relationships necessitate that you cease your pursuit of other partners; building community necessitates that one stays bound to a location long enough to foster deep relationships; a healthy body imposes restrictions on your time, money, and the foods you can eat. Life is about choosing in what manner you'd like to be limited – lack of restriction isn't an option. To fully accept this reality brings a sense of peace unknown to those who spend life fighting for increasing quantities of personal freedom. This constant struggle, too, shows that we are too inspired.
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Here's an uncomfortable idea to chew on: not only is the acknowledgment of our limitations and the prioritization of meaningful work important, we are actually MADE to work. I think that part of our collective disdain for work stems from the fact that we primarily think of it in economic terms; a purely profit-centric view of our efforts naturally dilutes much of what we value. When I refer to work, however, it encompasses anything creative or functional in purpose, whether that be sweeping one's home or creating financial models. Insofar as a task is of utility for oneself and others, is non-destructive, and points at a moral good, all work is of equal value. We as a society mistakenly undervalue the contributions of teachers and mothers for example, but although their efforts are not adequately compensated, much of society falls apart in their absence. If looked at solely from the perspective of the value their work creates, what they do is just as important as those who build the homes that we live in. From manual labor to giving wise advice to a friend, if you divorce tasks from the context of economic utility, much of what we do is rightfully considered work. When looked at through this more holistic lens, the reality that work never ends goes from being a painful realization to a no-brainer.
A nugget of wisdom about work that was held by our ancestors but has been lost on modern man is the idea of the infinite game. If you were a farmer a few hundred years ago, there was no concept of being "done with the job" – there was always more to do. The kind of task changed with the seasons, but the fact of needing to work remained. While ancient agriculturalists struggled in many other ways, they were much more at peace with the infinite nature of work than modern man. We live life with the false assumption that one day we'll be done with this toil, all the while seeing the number of tasks we need to complete increase.
Even when one realizes the importance of work and makes an effort to prioritize that which matters most, distractions abound. To counteract the pernicious onslaught on our attention spans, it has become necessary to not only ignore distractions, but to diminish the possibility of future interruptions. I’ve enacted various measures in my own life in pursuit of more focus (turning off all text notifications on my phone and auto-denying all calls that aren’t in my contact list, for example.) It would be a lie to say that I haven’t paid some price or experienced FOMO as a result of the boundaries I've set, but to reiterate the Tim Ferris quote from earlier, "Let the small bad things happen to make the big good things happen." Even in the short time that I've imperfectly emplaced these practices, I've been so much more capable of staying present, and have felt a decrease in that persistent itch for my next hit of dopamine. I'm still far from an ideal lifestyle and regularly take steps backward, but I've acquired a taste for the distraction-free life and am willing to sacrifice what is necessary for the serenity it affords.
I had another realization recently about our tendency to be too inspired: as much as we desire to take part in every opportunity we are presented with, part of what makes any experience meaningful is the fact that you forwent the opportunity to do anything else. The constant division of our attention among numerous tasks and opportunities is a feeble attempt to sidestep this unflinching reality. There is no FOMO-free path, only the choice of what you'd like to prioritize over all else. Every "yes" is a thousand "nos."
I talked on the phone with a friend recently. He was fraught with anxiety about issues that lay outside of his control, be it climate change or a new story about some great evil that we humans have committed. I wondered aloud if his worrying about those things was productive, but he was convinced that unless he was "educated and concerned" about what was going on in the world, he was a "bad citizen." This is another instance of being too inspired. For most of human history, we had no clue about what was going on in the world outside of our immediate community – maybe that was for the best. To live in perpetual fear about a world of things that lie outside of one's control benefits no one. To counteract this, one can set aside a small chunk of time – maybe a few hours per week – to think about their goals, the impact of their daily actions, and how they hope to improve the wider community – the rest of one's life should be spent carrying out the outcomes of this planning. It is easier to avoid entertaining anxiety about that which is out of one’s control when one has given some thought to their actions. To think about the future in a constrained context is necessary, but to LIVE in the future is a path to an unnecessarily painful life. We should use our limited foresight to consider what is to come to the best of our ability and then loosen our grip on what lies ahead, the result of which is ultimately in the hands of God.
Lastly, I am learning to become ok with the idea that I am just a regular dude, a cog in the machine, a tree in a story about the forest. So much of the suffering I experience is borne of a sense of self-importance. The richest lives are often those you don't hear about, the ones spent investing in local community and loving one's friends and family — the ones that are quiet and intentional, not rushed. The digital age causes a sort of selection bias; we primarily hear from those who are loud, flashy, and hedonically appealing, while those who are more levelheaded and pragmatic in their approach to life are who we should be emulating.
Question the motivating factors of your life and audit how you might be driven by a desire for acclaim or fortune – I know my desires often stem from the wrong place. Acknowledge your finitude and realize that there is no free lunch, no burden-less path, no option without a yoke – limitations are often what make life meaningful. Cut out as much of the noise as you can; left unchecked it will only grow louder. There are a million things to be distracted by in the modern age, so try not to be too inspired.