Life may not be meaningful but it can and should be exciting. That seems to be Elon’s conclusion following his existential crisis, and I’m very comfortable accepting his hypothesis. “Do what excites you” is easier to follow than “do what makes you happy”, because excitement is less complex and ephemeral than happiness.
So what am I excited about? What is the wife excited about? What do Singaporeans have to be excited about? The region? The globe?
Part of what’s so great about reading books is the fact that books are rarely written by accident. Books are the result of sustained effort, and it typically takes something deliberate and non-random to make a sustained effort at something. Passion maybe, or deep curiosity and yearning, or obligation and duty. Somehow the end result is something that can be exciting, at least in scope if not in content (because some books and art can be depressing).
That seems a little vague and unwieldy. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that books and essays are more inspiring than tweets and status updates. But of course I’d say that, wouldn’t I, to be consistent with my beliefs? But I used to be somewhat neutral about this, and developed a social media addiction of some sort. I think it’s more accurate to say that I have some sort of intrinsic drive to write and share, and social media happens to be the path of least resistance. The problem about the path of least resistance is that it seems to take some resistance to develop quality- it takes pressure to make a diamond, it takes exertion to build muscles.
So that’s my point then. Books are born by swimming against the current, the same way diamonds and muscles and businesses are made. Success can be influenced by luck, but the luck only comes into play after the effort. You don’t find the life partner or job of your dreams by having it fall into your lap while you’re surfing Reddit or playing Minion Rush. (Well you might, in the same sense that you might win the lottery. The odds are heavily against you and it is NOT a winning strategy.)
So books are inspiring because of the effort put in. They’re crystallized thought. Social media tends to be disorganized, messy thought that may or may not be useful. One can learn to spot the gems- and I’d like to think that I had developed this ability to a reasonable degree from spending so much time on Facebook and the like- but on hindsight it’s not a very optimal strategy. My main gripe is how hard it’s been to effectively navigate and search the past in social media. There’s a very strong “current affairs” bias on all social media, which makes it very easy to get caught up in whatever’s urgent rather than whatever’s important. I’m not saying that it’s not possible, I’m saying it’s just hard not to get swept away in the current. I can’t do it.
Lately I’ve gotten very curious about what I sound like in a vacuum. Of course, it’s impossible to ever TRULY be in a vacuum- we’re socialized, have cultural biases, we still hear the news from our friends, blah blah blah. But I want to hear who I am and what I have to say away from the hustle and bustle of the social-media-news-cycle. What will I talk about when I’m not trying to make wisecracks every five minutes to get a bunch of Facebook likes?
This line of inquiry is taking me down a path of minimalism. What will I write when I have no access to Facebook or Twitter audiences, who are relatively easier to please, and are never super-engaged to begin with? (I’m not saying that people on social media are silly or stupid or lousy audiences or anything like that. I’m saying that the nature of the medium is such that everybody’s swimming too fast to engage anybody else. Again- engagement and discourse is possible, and some people will stop their day to sit down and get embroiled in a passionate argument with you on Facebook- but people do this for entertainment more than anything else. And these are typically not the people you want to be engaging with anyway.
Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and the like ate never going to talk to you on Facebook because they’re too busy working on real problems- so if you want to do something that matters you’re going to have to get out of there and find them. Get out of the tavern and onto the battlefield. That’s my hypothesis.
I’m being deliberately extreme here and I know there are examples of people who are able to strike a balance. Nassim Taleb has some interesting discussions on his Facebook Page. Neil Tyson has a lot of fun and engagement on his Reddit AMAs. But the point is they do this AFTER having done their work. They get on social media to unwind and to have random serendipitous interactions. There are no pretenses about the sugary nature of a social media diet.
Again, maybe its possible to write a novel while spending some time on Reddit every day, just as it’s possible to play video games and get straight A’s, or eat fast food and have six pack abs. But you have to earn that sort of privilege with work and discipline and I just don’t trust myself. I have too much evidence in my personal history to show that I lack focus and discipline. I have reached a stage where I can say- this isn’t working for me, I can’t trust myself with this. I have to start over from Stage 1.
So I’m cutting things out of my life. One of the major theories that’s hardest to test is that you are the sum of the people you spend the most time around. This seems to be the best source of behavioral change for me. I found it much easier to stop smoking when I started work in an office where nobody smokes. I could rationalize it and come up with all sorts of stories and explanations, but consider the simple counter-example: if my boss started smoking, I’d be right back on cancer boulevard.
If there’s one thing I’m learning lately, it’s that I have far less direct self-control than I’d like to believe or pretend. And once I acknowledge this, a harsh wind blows through my mind and reveals what I’ve been burying over the years- hundreds if not thousands of examples of a pathological inability to control myself. The “study journal” I kept during my JC days is a striking reminder of how incompetent I was (and am), and how it caused me great pain and anguish. I was constantly afraid, anxious, nervous, insecure. I kind of still am. It becomes a negative cycle- I’d hide the day’s failure with lies and distractions, and then pretend (and sincerely believe) that the next day would be different. It invariably wouldn’t. It would seem insurmountable, and I’d ultimately give in to a sort of “well, I’m fucked, so be it” attitude. I genuinely believed that my future self would be okay with that, and would figure something out- so here I am, trying to figure it out. I’m a messy, ugly work in progress.
I’ve always asked- and my parents and teachers often asked- what can be done? How can we help you? Removing immediate distractions didn’t work- I always found something else. I knew my parents didn’t have the time or energy to police me 24/7, so I’d wait for them to falter and then get right back at it- I recognize parallels between this and the internal dialogue of cigarette addiction. Every smoker simultaneously wants to quit, and doesn’t.
Could social pressure have worked? My parents sent me to a tuition center where I became the decaying center of procrastination- I did the least work of anybody else and I inspired others to do the same. Why are you guys working so hard? You might die next week. C’mon let’s watch some Friends on Ang’s mp3 player. I did sometimes try to do work, but those fleeting moments of inspiration never lasted. However large the spark, the fire never kepr burning. I think I was trying to do too much, to change a lifetime in a single dramatic leap. But fires start small and need kindling and tending, and I somehow never grasped that. I’m still struggling with it. I can only say I’ve truly experienced that in the inverse sense- becoming a smoker. And maybe writing. You start and you keep at it.
How do you save the rotten apple when it corrupts those around it? Weak metaphor, people are far more complex. But I always had a knack for seeking out the slackers. I avoided associating with people who worked hard in school. They turned me off, somehow. But I wasn’t able to seperate my dislike and distrust of academia from the real value of hard work. (I always loved learning- I’d read books under my desk during class even in JC- but I hated school, and I was unfamiliar/uncomfortable with hard work, so I think I combined the two almost by accident.)
Maybe it’s as simple as that- not realizing that just because school is lame, hard work doesn’t have to be. After all, I do admire people who work hard at things that truly matter to them. I told myself before that nothing truly mattered to me, or that I didn’t know what mattered to me, but whatever it is, this is the source of the problem that I need to fix in my life. Nothing else deserves more focus.