Doing Real Things is Good for the Soul

woman in a workshop


The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche ​​described​​ happiness as “the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.”

It’s odd, then, that so many people had a negative reaction to Apple’s new advertisement for the next generation of iPads. The ad certainly shows resistance being overcome. It shows it being flattened:

Perhaps the disconnect is that for us to find happiness and satisfaction, we’ve got to be the ones doing the overcoming. Clicking a few buttons to generate a masterpiece is not the same as toiling for months on end.

Happiness and satisfaction emerges from the process of doing the work, and the growth and self-discovery that accompanies it.

Around the same time the Apple advertisement was unveiled, a ​​group of people on the internet​​ proposed a fitness challenge: 100 push-ups, 100 squats, and 100 burpees for time. The feat itself is arbitrary, but the uptake was huge. I’m convinced a big part of the reason for this is that completing 100 push-ups, 100 squats, and 100 burpees is not something an iPad can do for you. The accomplishment is satisfying because it requires work. I also suspect it’s why our ​​post​​ last week on the need for peak experiences in a superficial world was so popular.

Here’s another simple example: imagine that with artificial intelligence, you could click a few buttons and within seconds “compose” a Grammy Award caliber piece of music. Would this bring you fulfillment? I doubt it. Even the best outcomes are meaningless if we don’t get to go through the process of creating them.

Also last week, the CEO of the dating app Bumble ​​said​​ that artificial intelligence could replace dating: people could have an AI bots that mirrors their personality, and the AI bots could date each other until matches are found. By and large, the response to this idea was also negative. (What’s interesting is that to a large extent this is already what dating apps do with their algorithms, and perhaps why so many people loathe them.)

Technology is a phenomenal tool. But it’s just that, a tool. If it flattens the experience of creating and connecting and learning and growing, then it will leave us apathetic, numbed out, and depressed, like characters in the book Brave New World or the Disney movie Wall-E.

I think this is why I find so much ​​satisfaction deadlifting​​ in a gym with other people, reading books without distraction, or facing the blank page to write. None of these activities are without effort, but it’s precisely because they involve effort that I find them to be satisfying.

To be clear, not all effort is meaningful. There are parts of my job I’d love to automate. The struggle to keep an accounting spreadsheet up-to-date is different from the struggle to write a good book chapter. If robots took over the former I’m pretty sure it would have a positive impact on my life. But if robots took over the latter, I’m not so sure…

It’s an oversimplification, but one could argue what makes us human is our ability to feel, think, and genuinely connect with others. It is probably worth protecting these qualities, and when technology replaces them in one area of our lives, to actively seek them out in others.

Shortly after the Apple advertisement was first published, someone named Reza proposed the problem could be fixed by running it in reverse:

I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer the second version.

Here, the iPad is not flattening the experience of creating and developing skills, it is opening and enabling it.


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