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.
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!!!)
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.