It is the turn of the year and one thing seems certain: the pace of information, stimulation, and distraction is not slowing down. The culture of heroic individualism—an ongoing game of oneupmanship where measurable achievement is the main arbiter of success and the goalpost is always 10 yards down the field—can be summarized neatly with two words: frantic and frenetic. People feel pushed and pulled around by life, never really here, never really there, always kind of everywhere. This is not a recipe for peak performance, success, meaning, fulfillment, or any of the other qualities we claim to desire.
One reason the frantic and frenetic nature of heroic individualism is so problematic—and a reason that is rarely discussed—is the alienation it causes people to experience from their own lives. That’s what we’ll cover below.
First, a definition: Alienation is “the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved.”
Alienation from oneself is associated with a whole manner of negative consequences, including exhaustion, apathy, languishing, burnout, and even depression. Alienation is also a hindrance to getting into flow states, be it in work, relationships, sport, or the creative process. In other words, the more you are never really here, never really there, always kind of everywhere the worse you can expect to feel and do.
Meanwhile, the more intimacy and focus you have in your life, the better.
Unfortunately, when you are relentlessly running around and being barraged by an endless deluge of novelty and distraction it becomes increasingly challenging to inhabit your own body and your own life. I recently heard the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson say the only thing separating us from the metaverse, the digital world within the real world, is ourselves. That is, we make the choice when to put the phone in the other room, turn off the internet, disconnect the television, and so on. The same mindset applies not only to digital distraction, but to all distractions.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with spending time in the metaverse. I do, and if you are reading this on a computer, you do too. Where wrongness comes in is when we aren’t aware, let alone deliberate, about how we spend our hours, minutes, and days. There is a difference between reading this on your computer with full focus or checking your social media or email every sentence.
Perhaps the key to flourishing in the future will be an ability to select what matters and makes your life meaningful, and then, to the extent possible, to design your life (and erect the necessary boundaries) to be able to get real close—to get intimate with—those things for extended periods of time. You do this externally by being intentional about your environment, digital device settings, when and where you open yourself up to distractions versus when and where you do not, and so on. You do this internally by learning to let thoughts and feelings come and go without attaching to them. I’m sure there are a host of policy levers that could be pulled to help, but I’m not crossing my fingers any of them will happen soon. For now, it’s an individual game.
And while it may seem unreasonable to live your entire life with intense closeness, it does seem reasonable to pick your spots, protect them, and see how you feel (and do) as a result. If you feel good, pick more spots. Follow this cycle and gradually your life becomes more intimate, which is to say more your own.
Do you control your distractions or do your distractions control you? And to what extent? These are questions to revisit regularly. Remember, groundedness is an ongoing practice. The seeds you water are the seeds that will grow. Here’s to good cultivation.
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