Everything I Have Learned So Far, and then some

I hit a milestone birthday this weekend: 40 years on the planet.

Reflecting, as one does at times like these, I decided to revisit a post I wrote in 2010 titled Everything I’ve Learned So Far. I dug this out of the archives because I was curious: how much, or how little, have these convictions changed for me in eight years? If I was going to write a 2018 edition of Everything I’ve Learned So Far, what would I omit or add?

For the most part — for better or worse — 32-year-old James sounds suspiciously not unlike 40-year-old James. At the same time, a lot has changed. To recap: I’ve been married to an incredible person for these eight years, who has taught me so much. I have almost completely changed the direction of my so-called career path. On top of all this, I even had the immense privilege to spend three and a half years writing along the way. In sum: it has been a significant eight years.

In the intervening years, these sixteen ‘life lessons’ have been tested, stretched, forgotten, re-learned, and developed. There have certainly been a few additions. And perhaps some remain less front of mind today. Either way, I am going to make some space to ponder and write about each of “things I had learned so far” as a 32-year-old and revisit them from the perspective of my forties. My goal is to reflect on one per week.

I humbly own the fact that this onset of contemplative energy is wholly inspired by turning 40. I am intrigued by the cultural significance associated with the passing of decades. But like the countdown of a New Years celebration, a big round number seems as good of a reminder as any to intentionally pause and ponder life.

If I have the good fortune of another 10 years on this planet, I will hopefully look back on this reflection (in 2028, in my fifties!) through yet another decade of existence. I want to believe that wisdom compounds with age — or, at very least, that every year adds another year’s worth of experience and learning through which to see and describe life.

(I’ll tag the subsequent posts in this ‘series’ of reflections as life lessons.)

Stop wasting other people’s lives

10 Timeframes by Paul Ford is a beautiful essay. Ford asks a deceivingly simple question: when you spend a portion of your life (that is, your time) working on a project, do you take into account how your work will consume, spend, or use portions of other lives? How does the ‘thing’ you are working on right now play out in the future when there are “People using your systems, playing with your toys, [and] fiddling with your abstractions”?

It is good to think about how to negate wasting other people’s time in the here and now. Straight to the chase, I can’t say it better than Jason Fried: “If you have a meeting coming up and you have the power to do so, just cancel it.”

But what about the future users of your products, platforms, systems, and knowledge? Are you honouring their lives and time, too? I often think about this when editing video: does this one-minute section respect the time of future viewers? A minute multiplied by the number of times a video might be viewed suddenly represents a sizeable chunk of collective human resources. In this respect, ‘filler’ is irresponsible: if you know something is not adding value or meaning to future ‘consumers,’ then you are, in a sense, robbing life from them. It seems extreme to say that, yes, but hopefully contemplating the proposition has not wasted your time.

The Lie of the Timeline

Having pulled the plug on my social media presence, it is interesting to think about these platforms from the outside. Indeed, I am thinking about them very often. The reoccurring engrained impulse, I should post this on Twitter, remains a very strong instinctive muscle response.

It’s like my brain is a recovering pigeon that escaped from a Zuckerbergian version of a B.F. Skinner lab.

This respond-in-the-moment impulse highlights one of social media’s most conniving sleight of hands. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter present themselves to us as timelines, as if this moment is a ‘snapshot’ in a timeline. They purport to engage us in this moment, in the present. But as we engage, we do not merely input data into a timecoded sliver of history called ‘the present’, but into an archival dataset that is ostensibly the property of someone else, and for their profit. Timelines that ask us to comment on the present are lies: a status update is not really about the present moment at all, but about compiling your data profile.

Social media steals our present, saves it ‘outside’ of time, so it can ‘serve’ us ads in the future. This exchange is equally true if you are a selfie- or foodie-enthusiast, a tele-grandparent, a hate mongering troll, or a social justice warrior. Everyone is being played.

The Politics of Inevitability and a Generation Without History

“By embracing the politics of inevitability, we raised a generation without history,” writes Timothy Snyder. The politics of inevitably is a confidence trap — a lulling sense of a security in fixed trajectory laid before us. It’s society on autopilot. To the extent that ‘progress’ becomes the assumed course, the necessity of teaching history diminishes, and in the decline of a historical consciousness comes the decline of progress itself.

In this complacency, history is forgotten. It is made to seem useless, irrelevant to ‘modern’ concerns. Indicators of Snyder’s “generation without history” are rampant. In a recent talk, The Swindle of the New, Terry Eagleton proposes: “The fact is surely that any society which only has its contemporary experience to live by is poor indeed. And that surely is becoming increasingly the case in our own time, where the past has been reduced to spectacle, packaged heritage, consumable commodity, or recyclable style.”

A critical mark of a “generation without history” is the prevalence and commercialization of authenticity. Adherents to the cult of authenticity, in Eagleton’s words, “hold the unconscious conviction that [they] are self-authoring, self-generated, sprung from [their] own head, and thus entirely entirely autonomous and self-determining.” Only in “generation without history” can one imagine themselves as capable of total self-definition, which is the cornerstone assumption of the authenticity value system and identity matrix. “The modern age is the only one I am aware of that regards authenticity as involving a clean break with the past.”