They Had Staff. You Have Technology.

They Had Staff. You Have Technology.

I saw a meme a few weeks ago that said, “How did those Renaissance men do all those things?” They were accomplished in so many areas; they were scientists and historians, wrote about philosophy and literature, played music and drew, and were just expected to speak multiple languages… how did they do it all?!?

Well, most of the people whose work has been left behind were members of the upper class. Most of us are not.

Correctly, somebody pointed out that they had staff. Also, mostly, they were men who had wives who took care of the mundane parts of their world, made sure that they were fed, and that their clothes were cleaned, and generally that their lives didn’t impinge too much on their work. They got to focus because somebody dealt with everything else. (If you do even a cursory modern reading on the subject, you will find that most really accomplished people still have these advantages.)

Additionally, the amount that they needed to “know” to contribute to a field was a lot smaller. These days we give people questions on assignments that originally warranted a Ph.D., and they have to return the answer within two weeks. The years of study that it takes to get to the edge of a discipline just keeps getting longer and longer…

Does that mean our dreams of becoming accomplished souls are impossible?


Phew. Glad we got that over with… Oh, you want more than just a definitive no. Let’s go, then.

We have choices.

We have access to “all the world’s knowledge” at our fingertips… we may have to get clever about finding it, but it’s there for us. We have free or cheap books, courses, and movies/documentaries/podcasts…

<tl/dr> We have lots of options, but your hours and days are largely being used up by things you only chose by default. Start pushing back on those defaults to reclaim your time, and you’ll be able to do more of the things you value.

But we don’t just have technology, we have opportunities that exceed those of the upper class in much of human history.

We live in a world that has a strong tradition of learning, and a cast of millions (at least) of people who are aching to share their knowledge.

Most of us have freedom of movement, and access (at least for the moment) to cheap travel.

The internet gives us the ability to work remotely, which both adds to the number of companies we can work for, and gives us access to audiences that we never could have reached with previous media.

Add to all of this reduced constriction around gender roles, at least a modicum of social mobility, and religious freedom that gives us permission to walk away from those structures of control, and a whole new problem becomes apparent.

You can make choices that were never available before.

This is a different kind of problem; it is a question of managing attention and time in an era of abundance.

Alt (it’s not working): Woman with straw at her lip but not really drinking while also looking at her phone.

We are drowning in information, we are drowning in ideas, we are even drowning in material wealth. The worst thing is that we aren’t equipped to recognize it, let alone to manage it.

We spend billions of dollars on stuff we don’t really need. We spend billions more dollars storing things that we still don’t need because we don’t know how to let them go. We buy too-big houses, too-frequent cars, too-far-apart responsibilities, and too-expensive educations that are no longer a guarantee of anything. Then we spend our lives trapped at the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, feeling in constant peril, because the cost of maintaining these too-much lives keeps us always at the edge of our income (no matter what it is.)

We try to stay on top of all the millions of things that are happening at the same time, and the more we learn, the more overwhelmed we are, and then we can’t make good choices, because who could possibly make good choices when they have to consider every single thing that has ever happened in the history of the world… (Breathe!!!)

Too. Many. Books!!!

The problem is that we don’t know what constitutes enough, and we don’t know how to resist the pull to more. Which means that we miss the point at which we could be redirecting our energies to something more intentional. Now, this is not because of a personal failure. We’re playing out the roles we were assigned as competitors and consumers. We’re doing what we were told. We’re very, very good students.

But we are caught in the dominant story, which is More! Bigger! More Important!!! FASTER!!!

If we can learn to harness this abundance and direct it, we can select. Less. Smaller. More meaningful. Aware.

This is incredibly difficult. If it were not incredibly difficult, everybody would be doing it. They would pick the simplest life that sustained them, and then they would get on with living meaningfully… They would do what they care about the most. But they (we) don’t.

Instead, we spend our lives competing for the right (and permission) to make a contribution, and frequently defer our “real work” indefinitely as a result. We wait to be assigned the important task, rather than looking around and saying, “Well, what can I do that is a priority to me right here and now?” Which means that we get assigned tasks. Lots of tasks. So many tasks.

At this point, most of them were just floated out into the world by somebody on the internet and hooked themselves onto us. “Read this. Do this. Make this meal. Play this role. Dress like this. Make yourself look like this. Go to this place and do this thing. Use this app. PAY ATTENTION TO MEEEEE!!!!”

Here’s your power: “Naw. I’m good.”

If you want to be more polite about it because it was presented to you in a less random way… “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m not available for that right now.” (Or if you want to more be bold about it, “That’s not a priority for me right now.”)

To make time for what really matters (to you) just start resisting the story of “more, bigger, faster.”

They had staff. We have too much. But we also have technology, and technology is supposed to work for us, not the other way around.

The key is that we need to reclaim that power.

Amateur at Everything

Each of has a limited number of things that we are pros at… whether those are the things we get paid for, or things that we have mastered as hobbies.

Everything else (relationships, decision making, raising small people, taking care of our bodies, buying and selling cars and houses, picking a career…) is amateur hour.

So, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the subtitle of this blog is (and has been, for years), “Experiments in Living with Uncertainty.”

The last 15 years of my life have been one long process of coming to terms with this deep discomfort: We’re just making up all the most important things in our lives.

Let’s group those “Mastery” skills into one category. You might have as many as 10 things in there, depending on how they overlap, whether you’re a ridiculous overachiever, and how old you are.

Our culture has this ridiculous idea of “Work-Life balance,” in which one of those things takes up at least 50% of your waking life, and everything else is pushed into the corners. This is a trap I’ve been trying to escape, because what we *actually* have in this era of the gig economy, side hustle, freelancing, and constant pivoting looks more like Work-Work-Life-Life-Life (and maybe some more Work) balance.

We have this myth about the proper life (let’s use a middle-class approach, where you go out to a predictable 9-5, with appropriate child care, and come home to a family that makes dinner and then spends an appropriate amount of time enjoying one another’s company, goes off to bed and does it all again the next day.) There are variations on a theme, but they all have sort of a vagueness about them. Magically (in this imaginal realm), the house is always clean, everybody is in a moderately good mood, we know how to eat and exercise and cook and clean, and hire good people to fix things around our house and find child care and date and get to know one another and resolve conflicts and have a good divorce and get remarried and plan a wedding and choose among career paths and decide on a school and save for the future and make ethical purchasing decisions and keep up with the current Netflix/Prime/Hulu binge-worthy whatever so we can participate in the conversations around the water cooler and also, oh, we know the right political positions on everything even though they are always shifting because society is (literally) socially constructed and…

Take a breath!

Life, it turns out, is complicated.

And we’re all making it up as we go.

I Would Still Plant a Tree

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. – Martin Luther

Parts of the world are definitely going to pieces.

When I started writing this post, I was speaking in more abstract terms.

The parts of the world that were falling to pieces were further away, and they were doing so more slowly. I knew that they were there, but I was only connected enough to the stories to shake my head ruefully, wish that it were different, and mostly carry on with my life, trying to navigate at least marginally ethical choices within a set of structures that nearly precludes them.

Because what else do you do about the parts of the world that are within monitoring distance, but outside of your influence? What do you do with your seemingly infinitesimal influence faced with the gaping maw of the needs of a world in pain? Which starfish is yours to throw back in the water?

Reality is steadfastly non-linear. We can imagine the future, but we can’t predict it, not beyond statistics. We are close enough to impact one another (enormously, as it turns out), but also, we’re so loosely connected that the impact of any individual action cannot be traced, and certainly can’t be forecast. We do not know what comes next in the story. (Which is what we are really after.)

This is hard for humans. We crave predictability… we want our actions to be linearly linked to effect. I claim, in fact, that this gap between how we want the world to be and how it is is the deep tragedy of human consciousness. The illusion of control and predictability couples with the deeply chaotic nature of reality to leave us all both over- and under-invested in our actions and their outcomes.

The situation in the world today (pandemic with corresponding economic collapse, if you happen to be reading this somewhere ages and ages hence) is, make no mistake, a catastrophe. I don’t think it would be overstating it to call it a giant horrible fucking catastrophe. It’s going to be one of the things historians study, unless we fuck it up so badly that there are no historians left to study it. The problem is that it is multiple levels of catastrophe all unfolding at the same time, because our systems are so tightly interwoven that there is no thread that can be pulled without impacting the entire tapestry.

Also, we have no back up plan.

I work in both high tech and with my hands in the soil, and my whole life has been a challenge to figure out which of the prophesies (of doom and disaster or of glories untold) is right… so far, it looks like both, and I have long feared a race to the finish line… or, more likely, the promise of human potential slipping from our grasp just as we start to understand what is possible.

I am, at core, a pessimist. Possibly a cynic.

I have a weird… um… what’s the opposite of a misanthrope? Anyway. I have a deep compassion for the suffering of the individual, and a (corresponding) lack of faith in our collective ability to make good choices. Because that very suffering makes us do dumb things, and sabotage what is possible. We are terrible at solving problems that need us all to pull in the same direction, and there is a category of problems that probably cannot be solved unless we can agree on what that direction is.

The suffering of the world breaks my heart almost every day. I can’t even start to list the things that keep me up at night, or we would never be done with this post.

I find that I have a strong affinity to Cassandra. “Bad things are going to happen! Bad things are already happening! Everywhere, all the time!!! Why won’t anybody listen?!?”

Yet, I also hold this to be true:

“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Ancient Greek Proverb

There is an optimism to planting a tree (or starting any other project that has a long timeline, and for which you are not likely to be the primary beneficiary.) And where there is action, there is hope. It might be slim, but in taking action, something is possible.

Throwing up our hands and giving up, on the other hand, is a pretty good way to make sure that the world does fall to pieces. If we say, “Oh, there is nothing we can do in the face of this disaster,” and blithely (or stubbornly) go about our business, we pretty much guarantee that it will be much worse than it needed to be.

“This pandemic is going to kill millions of people, nothing we can do about it,” is, in fact, the path to that outcome.

If we give way to despair, we fail to hold space for something better to emerge.

And then, there is this one more thing…

What if we are wrong? What if the world doesn’t fall to pieces, but we have no more apples? What if we leave it to others to plant the apples, but there are no others? Or what if we stop planting apples, and grapes, and also beans and peas, and blueberries and cabbages? And then, what if it turns out that we did still need those things? That we still needed hope (as well as food?) That soylent isn’t adequate to a life worth living. That we need the beauty of biting into a ripe pear and letting the juice run down our arms? That mere existence is insufficient?

I have planted trees (many). Each of those is both an act of defiance, and a vote for hope. And if I come through the current round of chaos (which I probably will), and there is a tree and me, so much the better, and if I don’t and there is only a tree, then at least there is a tree. And possibly bees to enjoy it. Certainly the mushrooms will come through.

A caution: this emphasis on trees might lead you astray.

We don’t need grand gestures; we need gestures of hope.

I can plant a flower, and the flower can feed a bee, and the bee can pollinate a plum, and the plum can ripen and become food, and the pit just might turn into  a tree… but each of those moments of beauty is worthy in and of itself. I plant the flower on its own merits. It’s not for the sake of the tree, and there is no harm in creating beauty that might never lead to the fruition of something large.

The world is not made of grand gestures (or trees) alone. It is made of mycelia, and ants, and elephants, and whales, and chickadees, and billions of human beings, and slugs, and viruses, and the hundred million things. It is patterns within patterns within patterns. It is fractal and chaotic, and there is beauty available at every moment.

So we nurture it. Because we need it.