Thursday, 9 April 2015

Less Ambition-Porn, Less Stress

Something is happening in the cultural Zeitgeist at the moment, or maybe I'm only just noticing it, but there seems like everywhere the heat is being turned up and at a faster and faster rate - like a boiling pot with the lid already bouncing off from the bubbles. In the world we inhabit it's not enough that you run faster tomorrow than you did today, your rate of increase of speed (your acceleration) also needs to keep going up.

Of course this is an insane thing to ask people to do indefinitely (because of pesky notions like physics, and logic) and is practically a recipe for creating a stressful situation. To make it more palatable it's instead dressed up as a sort of cultural fetishization of the tireless workholic, desperately working to bring dreams to life. Case in point, check out this advertisement I saw for Ronnie Screwvala's new book "Dream with your Eyes Open".

It could've been marketed in any which way, but notice the refrain that keeps getting repeated: "Don't sleep...". The implication being that sleep is for losers, something for people who've nothing better to do.

Don't sleep / Because the voice in your head won't let you / till you beat your next challenge
Overly obsessive voices in the head leading to persistent insomnia? Sounds more like a clinical condition than something to be encouraged... How could they possibly be actually trying to sell people on accepting increasing levels of stress in their life?!

The problem for me though is that there's some truth to the immortal words of Dr. Kelso when he said...

Nothing in this world that's worth having comes easy
(Side Note: That's from Scrubs Season4 Episode20 "My Boss's Free Haircut" by the way, great episode)

The problem is that for any endeavour that's even minutely creative or outside the "normal" scope of things there's an element of risk which means that there's bound to be an element of stress. Forget the distinction between Eustress (Good Stress) vs Distress (Bad Stress) for the moment, I'm talking about all the stories of entrepreneurs who've invariably faced a moment of just absolute, crushing despair when it looks like things aren't going to work out. Even SpaceX and Tesla Motors that are thought of today as inevitable success stories had moments when they almost went bankrupt.

The key thing then is to anticipate that creative endeavours are basically an emotional rollercoaster and the higher the stakes, the faster you'll go from the higher highs to the lowest lows.

The graphic above is taken from "Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic Depression" and hopefully an understanding of the effects of each stage will help you plan for it better.

All of this is much more complex and nuanced that this rosy, romanticized picture the media gives you of the creative mission. A martydom built around enough "not sleeping" does not automatically buy you success, it's just a prescription for devolving into a steaming hot mess.

You're so stressed out you forget to eat; you have no appetite, you're skipping meals... Just ask yourself: 'am I taking care of myself?'
If you continue to work and work incessantly because you've been convinced that this deadline is desperately important then you necessarily let other stuff drop and soon you're up to your neck in laundry and you're just drained and unable to do even the work that was once fun for you. That sucks, that state is to be avoided if at all possible and it's referred to as 'Ego Depletion'.

Of course, this is all fairly common sense stuff. And if the culture perpetuates workaholism then there will also naturally emerge something to soothe those aches. And this is where things get really sinister for me, because there's this advertisement on TV right now for some "Weekend Binge Time" on StarWorld.

This particular ad just bugs me on so many levels, but we'll just look at a couple of the themes that struck me. Here's most of the script, intercut with commentary:
Meet me, Binge Baba
Don't seek, don't search, just relax... On your sofa.
Binge Baba introduces himself, and innocuously invites you to just relax on your sofa to take a well deserved break. Remember that if you've been slogging through the week it most likely wasn't on something creative or rewarding for yourself, you were just struggling to keep afloat as your boss piles more and more on top of you as his boss shovels more crap onto him!

So on the weekends when you finally get some time to yourself, your TV whispers, "Don't seek, don't search, don't bother looking for a better situation; that kind of thinking is disruptive... also isn't this couch just so much more comfortable! Relax, you've earned it!"
The real question is not whether life exists after death,
It is how you spend your weekends when you're alive.
To me this is about as dark and insidious as it gets. Don't worry about death, don't worry about whether your life has meaning? Also notice that he doesn't say you should spend your "Time" well, you are encouraged to spend your "Weekends" well. That subtle omission means that it's assumed that your Weekdays are already spoken for, like it's the most obvious thing that five out of seven days are pre-destined to be spent in a cubicle.
So get comfortable and watch your favorite shows, All At Once.
And there it is. The great tragedy of it all is that all this incessant prodding to work harder produces a mass of people who're just too tired for anything. But even in that exhaustion, the genius of capitalism finds a way to squeeze some profit out of them as well by plopping them in front of a screen and feeding them more ads.

Society could be exhausting people by encouraging them to step out of their creative comfort zones more often but as we know, such steps are necessarily painful experiences. The fear of rejection especially is probably one of the most pervasive feelings across anyone I've ever met. So of course, unconsciously and collectively, we attempt to protect one another from these feelings by bringing each other to paths that are considered "safe". Typically this has us encouraging each other in steady, salaried jobs even though we individually might feel that something may be missing... and the wheels just keep on turning.

Bleak as this all sounds though, I think there's still hope yet and personally I think it starts with rejecting the notion that "Happiness" is something worthwhile. Or atleast, that pursuing Happyness for it's own sake is the ultimate objective. For one thing, achieving a state of happiness by actively chasing it might not even be possible because of the way our biology works à la the Hedonistic Treadmill. The problem with the pursuit of happiness is that it leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by institutions that would place the proverbial carrot always just beyond reach.

Moreover, and this is where it's really interesting, maybe what we really want is not happiness but (paradoxically) to lose ourselves in something (anything) that completely captivates our attention.

When you are caught in a creative endevour... happiness doesn't enter it; you are ready to suffer! ~Slavoj Žižek
Supposedly there were scientists in the time of of the discovery of radiation who considered the possibility that there was something dangerous about the work they were doing and continued regardless. Of course, Marie Curie eventually succumbed to Radium poisoning but her life and her legacy resonate even to this day.

It might be impudent to say, but the ultimate question might really be:
"What would I do, if money were no concern?".

This flies right in the face of conventional wisdom that teaches us to both fear poverty and crave affluence but maybe just clear away the concern with materialism for a moment and find whatever it is that really drives you. Just as you cannot command a flower to bloom or insist that a person love you, a job that doesn't align internally can be one of the most cruel punishments we inflict on ourselves.

So search for your Radium, and do what you have to till then... and in the meantime try and take care of yourself so that when the time comes and you need to stay up for three days straight your body and mind are strong enough to carry you.

As for me, I'm going to go to bed once I finish putting this up. Good night.

Also f*@# Binge Baba!