That nothing is free is a physical law, and one that extends to being a truly unique human.
We invest an awful lot into status — the way we look, think, solve problems, speak, eat, dress, treat others, stand up for causes — and generally dislike being told that ‘we’re just like everyone else’, and yet, tragically, what a rarity is the person who Does Things Differently. And by differently, I really mean differently.
Doing the same things as everyone else gives all power to forces that know very little about what is best for you or the world — namely Lady Luck and Mother Nature. Waking up, dressing, working, eating, sleeping, writing, advice-seeking — you name it: doing these things the way most people do them is without question the most effective means of increasing the probability that you will be in the same situation of most of the people you’re imitating. The only differences will be down to luck and genetics.
If imitation — conscious or not — is done with the hope of experiencing levels of joy, meaning, ecstasy and love to which you viscerally aspire, it’s a rational strategy. But it won’t work: a world unto themselves, every person has an astoundingly unique and ever-evolving set of tastes, proclivities, preferences, interests, turn-offs, pet peeves, attractions, ‘natural’ skills — a bedless ocean of potential. The better strategy is aspiration minus copycat imitation: living your life in such a way which produces states you want to experience.
You can look to people you admire and imitate their routines, behaviours, expressions and so on, and this will work to a certain degree; but the deeper question is to ask what is it about this person that leads them do do X. Is there some great mission driving their decisions? Are they trying to prove somebody wrong? Have they had experiences you haven’t? Is there something else you’re missing? Did they conduct such an inquisition into their life before landing upon their current ways as the one you’re now performing? Such deeper questions allow you to move past the mistaken notion that surface imitation of the public persona of billionaires will add naughts to your bank account balance.
Another thing you can do is run emulations. In any given situation you can boot up an emulation of Socrates, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Kant, Hume, Tom Paine, MLK, Barack Obama, Margaret Atwood, Charlie Munger, Camille Paglia, Susan Faludi, Eric Weinstein, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Thomas Sowell, Tyler Cowen, Peter Thiel — whoever you want — and try to figure out what they would do in such a situation. This is an extremely underutilised and surprisingly effective move.
The extraordinary benefits bestowed upon us by this utterly unbelievable stage in our story aren’t without downsides. The information age has brought many benefits and will continue to do so, but not without cost; nothing is free. There is now always something to do — a podcast to listen to, a Netflix watchlist to top-up, a friend to message, a book to read, an article to gloss, a post to like, a job to do, a child to feed, and so on. From one perspective, time is now much better spent: waiting in queues is a different activity altogether when we have twitter, we’re more digitally connected, we can contact with ease almost everybody we’ve ever met, podcasts are the new sleeping pills, everyone with a smartphone has the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. But from another perspective, this is information overload.
It’s not just that the endless amount of Possible Things To Do and massive wealth of information is anxiety/FOMO-inducing, confusing, dissatisfying, a direct attack on some on humanities deepest held axioms (Religion being the obvious example); it’s that personhood is being crowded out. It’s that it’s easier to crowd yourself out through consumption. It’s that less personality and weirdness is encouraged by the technology and systems we have created. For instance, the endless stream of podcasts makes me feel like I just have to listen to this one more episode before getting to X, or that I have to read this book or article before finally feeling prepared enough to do Y — and it never ends. Pre-Information Age, it ended because one finished the newspaper, or the channel went off air for the night, or the library closed, or when one read all the books; today there is no end.1 Today there is less room to develop for whatever it is we mean when we say ‘person’. It’s increasingly a landscape of sheepthink.
But humans are special. We’ve come this far because of our incredible capacity for problem-solving, creativity, innovation, our ability to do the unexpected. It may seem like this piece is a pessimistic or anti-innovation rambling. But it’s not that, even in part. The crowding out of personhood is one negative vastly exceeded by a great number of positives produced by the incredible protopia we have constructed. And it’s a negative we can do something about.
Obsess over your ‘out-there’ personal project. Don’t hide your weirdness. Embrace your funk. Zag whilst the world zigs. Have strong opinions, hold them loosely. Be always open to new ideas, knowledge, and experiences. Question the ideas drilled into you during childhood, by your current environment, by your echo-chamber. Stop trying to understand. Place greater emphasis on trying things out, making mistakes, and correcting. Understand that you will never be qualified enough. Reassess your take on what it means to be confident. Recognise that the more you seek answers for how to do and how to be, the less you’re developing You; this is itself not bad, but seeking as a sole-strategy is equivalent to giving oneself a free pass at every opportunity, and hence can become a sort of perverse addiction. Dare to be wrong. Step further into the chaos. Prioritise solitude, time with yourself, idling, daydreaming. Rediscover boredom. If nothing else, ask What Would Shaun Do?