Excellence Requires Intimacy

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We don’t grieve and we don’t rest, we just choose the lie that feels the best.

These lyrics are from the opening song on a new album called Visitor, by John Moreland. I can’t stop listening. The entire thing is a gem.

The album wrestles with alienation, or the remove so many of us feel from our lives.

Moreland writes what he knows: following the release of his 2022 album, Moreland toured and spent a ton of time on the internet promoting his work. He got super plugged into the outside world and its opinions, and lost touch with himself. He started feeling alienated from his art and his life—which is to say he started feeling like crap.

Moreland’s rut came to a head in 2023, when he stopped touring and threw his smartphone away for six months. “I needed to not do anything for a while and just process,” he ​explains​.

The result of his time unplugged is the new album, probably his best and most intimate yet. He wrote and recorded it alone in his home, with the exception of his wife and one other musician, each of whom sing on a single track. Moreland played all the instruments.

The reason the album shines is because there is no space between Moreland and the work. No distractions. No extraneous bullshit. No noise.

Everyone craves flow states, when we are completely in the zone, full of life and meaning. But those only emerge out of direct experience. The more we insert between ourselves and whatever it is we are doing, the less likely we’ll ever achieve anything close to resembling flow.

The world today is frantic. Alienation is becoming the default state. Even if we aren’t directly plugged into some screen, spending too much time online puts us in a hyper vigilant, attention-fractured state of being. I call it ​internet brain​. We lose the ability to focus deeply on what is in front of us, to give what we care about our all. We start thinking in tweets, seeing the worst in other people, and imagining what would make for a good Instagram post instead of actually living what is in front of us.

This is a tragedy, full stop.

At the same time, we aren’t going to get rid of digital tools, and they aren’t all bad. After my third listen to Moreland’s album, you know what I did? I messaged him on Instagram thanking him for his devotion to the craft and for writing such a profound album. He responded. We connected. It was a cool moment for both of us.

And yet, and yet. If Moreland wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to step away from all the noise that got between him and his work, there wouldn’t have been such a poignant album over which to connect in the first place.

Perhaps the utmost key to living a good and meaningful life in the modern world is identifying what actually matters to you—and then getting clear and deliberate about ruthlessly eliminating anything that gets between you and those pursuits.

A popular example: people ​are having less sex​ because they bring their phones into their bedrooms. Then they wonder why they feel lonely and disconnected from their partner. It’s no different than an athlete bringing their phone into the training room. Or a musician bringing their phone in the studio. Or a physician or nurse watching cable news in the morning and then wondering why their mind is distracted and on edge all day.

The point is that we get in our own way, with assistance from countless sources of synthetic excitement, status, and meaning. As more technologies are introduced that help us to live and work “more efficiently,” it will become even harder to forge the right path forward.

A good guiding principle: if we want to experience fulfillment and quality in whatever it is that matters to us, we’ve got to find ways to remove sources of separation.

Excellence requires intimacy. There’s no way around it. And even if there was, it would defeat the purpose of striving for excellence to begin with.

​Brad

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