Sometimes I imagine what my dog would be like if he was one of those productivity hacker types.
It's hilarious. I imagine scratching the top of his head as he nuzzles into my hand so that I get just the right spot while he thinks, This is going to put me in such a good headspace for my walk later. Or I imagine his stream of consciousness during the walk: Let's pick up the pace a bit, Dad. My heart isn't working hard enough to build aerobic fitness. Or maybe I'd come home from the grocery store with one of those beef bones filled with peanut butter or sweet potato and he'd furrow his brow. Aren't we going to the dog park tomorrow? If I eat all that peanut butter today I'll be bloated.
The absurdity is comical, for a while, until I realize that this is exactly what I do.
For example, I've read some amazing essays over the past couple of weeks: Help there’s a dead CEO in my head by Adam Mastroianni; How did you get here? by Danica Delacruz; What’s Wrong with You? by Rick Lewis. Each essay left me feeling energized and inspired.
This naturally got me thinking:
I need to take action. How can I apply all these insights to my life, today? How can I quiet the CEO in my own head, overcome my own tragedies, quell my own unconscious reactivity? Actually, this could make for a great article. Imagine if I were able to create a framework for synthesizing and applying all the wonderful stories and information we consume on a daily basis? How happy and productive we'd all be at some undetermined point in the future!
The beliefs underlying my thought process and article idea are less inspiring, though. They're transactional. By trying to turn every insight into an action item, every idea into an instrument for improvement, I was commodifying all this beautiful work. I was viewing it purely as an asset from which I could extract future value.
I realized I was also doing this with my own writing. I remember being at a music festival in Montana last July and observing some of the other groups in the crowd, my mind scanning for an event or experience that could be extrapolated into some grand narrative or takeaway.
Strange thinking, isn’t it?
Even with essays that started out more organically, like the one I wrote about creativity that began with a story about making people call me Hakeem when I was little, I often found myself feeling pressure to tie a neat bow on the experience or topic I was exploring, always trying to give the reader a tidy nugget they could walk away with and start implementing into their lives immediately.
To be clear, I'm not saying that taking action from something you read or looking to inspire action in your readers is a bad thing—quite the opposite. I've read countless books, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, that have decidedly changed my life. And as writers we can only dream of our work inspiring others to take meaningful action. After publishing a piece last month about my journey with sobriety, I got calls from people I hadn't spoken to in years about how it inspired them to examine their own relationship with alcohol. This brought about a flavor of joy and fulfillment I had never experienced before, one of those reminders of just how wonderful it can be to exist.
But I didn't write that essay trying to inspire people, at least not consciously. I was sharing my own experience and trusting that the reader would come to the conclusion that made the most sense for them. And it turned out to have been the most inspirational thing I've written.
When we try to make everything we create and consume actionable, we introduce pressure and transactionality, taking us out of the moment and the experience. We commodify our life and our work. This cheapens both, and it makes it impossible to fully experience and appreciate the present. It also paradoxically diminishes the impact of the experience or work by virtue of separating ourselves from it.
There's a perceptive quote attributed to Cal Fussman: "The good shit sticks." He's right. Our subconscious is powerful, and we would be wise to trust it to integrate relevant stories and information and surface them as needed. The truly important stuff won’t quickly disintegrate from our minds like a cloud of mist.
Rather than viewing everything we consume, create, or experience as an object for providing future value, as does the productivity hacking version of my dog, we can instead immerse ourselves in the process, appreciate its nuances, and trust that the future will sort itself out based on how deeply we engage with the present.
I guess if I were forced to tie a neat bow on all this, the action item I'd suggest—to you and to myself—is this:
Stop looking for action items.
Thank you , , , and for the thoughtful feedback on this essay.
Early v this morning I read an email I never wanted to read. And then i had to, Why? because it came from the son of my oldest friend. We grew up together in wartime London, and though I married young and moved to Rhodesia we never lost touch.
Now. as I read on, I learn she has cancer and it has spread. Will I see her again? Not in this lifetime-no blue airletters, No facetime calls. It’s so sad, not tragic, we have both lived more years than most, but memories remain and there cannot be a replacement. So I have reached the stage where maybe there will be a similar letter, or maybe my children will write one on me. Mortality - yes, that’s what it’s about.
How long do I have?
Whoa - this is 'the good shit' and it is sticking. Sometimes I'll let my inbox stack up with unread newsletters thinking I don't have time to properly reflect or apply some of the lessons sprinkled throughout the writing others are sharing. Thanks for permission to take the pressure off, enjoy, and let whatever sticks, stick.