Losing the Plot (3/30)
Thirty essays in thirty days, number three
One of the easiest things to do in this life is to lose the plot.
Take writing on Substack, for example. You might begin with the goal of exploring your own creativity, of sharing a window into your mind with the world. The work for its own sake. You do this for a while, and it feels good. It’s fulfilling—exactly what it is meant to be. People begin to find your work. They tell you it’s good, that you have a talent for this. Your subscriber count goes up, that number in the top center-left of your dashboard, the number you find yourself looking at more often—first out of curiosity, then out of compulsion. You start paying attention to what happens to the number after you publish a piece. Whether it goes up or down. By how much.
Eventually, all aspects of your writing come to be seen through the lens of the number. The process by which words materialize in your mind and make their way onto the page becomes controlled by a filter of speculation about the impact those words will have on the number. Decisions about the subject matter of your writing, about how you present your body of work—also now routed through the filter. The work, for the number’s sake.
You have lost the plot.
It’s terribly easy to do this. Our lower nature beckons us, tempts us. We become beholden to biology, coaxed into the comfort of vanity and scarcity and self-importance, at the expense of the very thing we set out to do.
Vanity isn’t the only means of losing the plot, though. By way of another completely hypothetical scenario to which I cannot at all relate, let’s imagine a character named Alan. One day Alan does some soul-searching and discovers that curiosity and creativity are the particular flavors of fuel that make his engine hum. At the time, Alan is working at a job that inhibits him from having access to this fuel. One day, he learns that normal people can buy existing businesses. This is great, he thinks—a way to both scratch his entrepreneurial itch and have the time and freedom to pursue what he wants.
Alan finds the perfect business and is lucky enough to buy it. For a long time, life feels exactly as he dreamt it would; he spends his days learning and creating, iterating and building. He’s quite happy. This entrepreneurial life, it seems, is the only one for him. But then disaster strikes. The business Alan bought falls on hard times, and it starts hemorrhaging money. Suddenly, Alan feels cut off from the curiosity and creativity that gave him life. All he can think about is his business problems. He knows that the only solution is to find another source of income, but he can’t come up with any ideas. He feels stuck. Alan has become certain that the entrepreneurial life is the one he must live, for its own sake. He has come to build an identity around it. It takes months of further suffering, of becoming more and more separated from the curiosity and creativity that gave him life, to finally realize that he has lost the plot. The point, it occurs to him, is living a life built around curiosity and creativity; the means by which he builds that life will change. He gets over himself and finds a job that supports and cultivates these fuel sources, and his vitality returns.
The plot is our higher nature. The good stuff. While it often feels like we’re creatures who are programmed by a primal allure to the shiny objects that served our ancestors so well—resources, status, acceptance, whatever—much of the beauty of living comes from transcending that basic biology.
Whether by falling into narcissism, or obstinance and rigidity, or greed, or any other shallow denominator, it’s inevitable that at many points in our very human lives we will lose the plot. The difference between those who stray so far from the plot that it becomes lost forever and those who are able to course-correct is the simple act of paying attention, of checking in.
This is what people mean when they talk about living an ‘intentional life’. It’s not about having the perfect morning routine or wearing blue light blocking glasses or eating grass-fed squirrels. It’s about staying in touch with the plot, your plot—and doing your best not to lose sight of it.