Last night, I watched the recent documentary called, It Might Get Loud, which revolves around a meeting of three electric guitar virtuosos, each from a different generation. The elder statesman is none other than Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. The mature, but still in his prime, slot is held by U2’s The Edge, and the younger generation is represented by one of my absolute favorite musicians, Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Dead Weather). It’s a terrific film from a lot of different perspectives, but the ethic espoused by Jack White really hit on something I’ve been dwelling on for quite some time. Right at the beginning, he comes out with this…
Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Opportunity doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner. But it doesn’t make you a more creative person.
White expands on this idea again and again by talking about his need to struggle as a musician. He purposefully strips things down to make it harder to create something emotionally meaningful. He uses guitars that are cheap and won’t stay in tune. He arranges the instruments on stage in a way that is inconvenient, so even the act of getting to the organ after playing the guitar is difficult. The idea is that pushing through the hardship is what leads to creativity and emotional truth. When it’s too easy, finding truth and beauty is too hard. It seems paradoxical, but I think Jack White is on to something that can be generalized way beyond creating art.
The processes for obtaining the things we want and need are so streamlined these days that I wonder if we aren’t slowly optimizing all of the beauty and joy out of our lives. Before I go any further, let me just say that my focus here is not on technology as an evil; this is not a Luddite’s lament. What I want to talk about is what we’re using all of this technology for. I think I know.
We want everything to be easy. But why? In theory, when something is easy, it takes less time to accomplish. Okay, so we want more time. I’m onboard with that. But for what? So we can work more? Come again?
It sounds crazy, but I’ve been noodling on this for a long time, and that’s the best I can come up with. It seems that those who are the best at optimizing every little thing in their lives also tend to be the people who work the most. At least that’s the world I live in. So the next question is why work so much? I’m assuming that work for work’s sake isn’t the goal. So what is?
This is where the caveman thing comes into play. If we’re not paying attention, we simply fall into the norms of our social group. We adopt the goals of those we interact with the most. At my stage in life, my social surroundings are other thirty-somethings (some with kids, some not), all focused on achievement. It’s trite to say they’re after the brass ring, but it’s not far off. Bust your ass now so you can get the promotion, which requires you to bust your ass even more to get the next promotion. The distant hope is that the brass ring brings a level of happiness and contentment – and ease – that makes it all worthwhile.
And what of technology? Well technology makes it possible to dispense with the mundane so you can focus on work. Why go to the store twice a week when you can go to Costco once a month? Why visit the local library when the Internet is a click away? Why call when you can text? You get the idea.
But what if all of this ease, which just gives us more time to pursue the goals most present in our social groups, is eroding the possibility of finding real satisfaction in life. After all, it’s called the rat race because it is an endless, pointless pursuit – a constant footrace on a wheel that never stops turning. With every perceived success, we take on another goal, which invariably takes up more of our time. How do we get off? For this, we go back to Jack White.
What happens when we try to reject easy? What happens when we purposefully place the coffee maker in the laundry room? I’ll admit, I’m not good at this. There’s an old saying, “Leave it to the lazy man to find the easiest way.” That’s me. But it’s acute laziness, not chronic laziness that afflicts people like me. I want this or that little task to be easy because I want to devote my efforts to “bigger” things that really matter to me. But maybe that’s the problem.
What if this quest to optimize all of the little things is causing me to completely lose sight of the good economist’s favorite axiom – life is about tradeoffs? More and more, I’m finding that what’s really happening is that we’ve collectively bought into this idea that we can have it all. By optimizing here, I can have something else there. In the end, when I would previously have had to choose between two wants, I now can have both. Is this good for me? Jack White would say no, and I’m really beginning to think he’s right.
This is an illusion, this notion that we can have it all. By buying songs one at a time, I’m missing the songs on records that I’d love ten times more than the hits. Tradeoffs never go away; we just lose the ability to spot what we’re giving up.
So is that it? Reject easy? Manufacture hardship? There are consequences, though. Putting aside the obvious changes in terms of “productivity” that come with rejecting easy, what about the social implications? What about that nagging feeling that we’re not keeping up? It’s genetic, ya know, so it will reveal itself one way or another.
Honestly, I don’t know how do this. I just have a feeling that it is the right thing to do. I’m going to start by picking one easy thing every day and doing it the hard way. Who knows. Maybe in a week I’ll realize that this is the dumbest idea I’ve had in a while. But I want to try. It just feels wrong to race to the table at every meal so I can be spoon-fed a huge helping of easy. What am I giving up? I need to find out.
I’ll keep you posted.