Bulletpoint Philosophy

“The man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important message.” — Henry David Thoreau

 

“Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?”

I’ve always wanted to begin an essay that way. The question raises all kinds of paradoxes. In asking it, am I already guilty of an excess of reflection? In reading my asking it, are you too prioritising thought and reflection over action? For that matter, why do we dichotomise thinking and living—as if to think were to be frozen in time, like Rodin’s sculpture?

I was at a Starbucks in New Haven working on an essay (“Describe the two-component account of moral weakness, and explain what you think is the most serious objection facing that theory.”) It was early morning in New Haven, but therefore early evening on the other side of the world when one of my closest friends sent me a text asking that troubling question. She gave no context, she said nothing else, she simply asked the question and it appeared on my screen in a little blue bubble designed by Apple in California, accompanied by a childish sound suggesting that a pigeon had just flown the question half way around the world. 

The short answer—the tl;dr—is: no. No, I don’t think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it. The slightly longer version: that seems to be our problem, really. 

This essay is, in its entirety, the answer I wanted to give my friend, but felt at the time incapable of. For as much as I wanted to answer her there and then, I felt that to do so—to send messages in glossy bubbles and to fill her ears with those tinny pigeon-noises—would be to belie my lack of thought, whatever I happened to say. I believed then, and I believe more strongly now, that the very form in which we present our thoughts can say almost as much as the thoughts themselves. A truism, perhaps proven by modernism itself. But invert this, and we get another truth: that what we say—and, prior to that, how we think—depends upon the form which we have available to say it. At a time when technology has changed these forms more in the past decade than in the few centuries before, now seems a good time to stop, to assess. Just what are we saying, and how are we saying it?

I propose we call ours the age of the bulletpoint philosophy. It is a time of quick fixes and strange philosophical mixes to life’s pressing problems. I could cherry-pick examples, but I scarcely need to. Websites like LifeHack, LifeHacker, Study Hacks, Zen Habits: as I check them while writing this, I get articles from “Get a Better You: Powerful workouts, easy recipes and wellness tips for an awesome life”, to “The Life-Changing Magic of the Inbox Sort Folder”; “How To Write Every Day” and “All The Passive Aggressive Stuff You Should Never Do In A Relationship”. In such philosophy (and I am one who believes philosophy is naught but counsel in the problems of living) we find Stoicism meeting Buddhism, hippie culture meeting the corporate incarnation of the Protestant ethic. Google is even more helpful. Ask for the meaning of life and I get 86 million answers in 0.76 seconds, with the best answer highlighted in a box at the top, lest I were to feel overwhelmed. (1. Stop Playing by the Rules; 2. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone; 3. Find Your Joy; 4. Listen to Your Intuition; 5. Appreciate the Individual Moments.)

For some years I have been simultaneously attracted to and revolted by this kind of writing. On the one hand, it seems to help. I’m inspired to change my life, to find my joy. It has persuaded me to be an early riser, and to become vegetarian; to get rid of some of my possessions, and to try meditating. Admitting this, I’m horrified. Surely someone who attends a so-called elite university should be more discerning, taking life lessons from Shakespeare rather than Tim Ferris? 

Like an anonymous street artist whose work is soon framed and placed in bourgeois living rooms, this writing first appeared on personal blogs but before long became its own genre with a proud place on major media websites. It has so far remained nameless as a genre. But “to name a sensibility”, wrote Sontag—“to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” 

I have both. Let us examine.

— — — — 

A simple chronology: first there were philosophers; then came professors of philosophy; now we have the bulletpoint philosophers and those who love to live. First there were those who loved to examine life; then came those who loved to reflect on those who reflected on life; then came those who said screw it all, get on with living by the most simple and immediate means—“Stop Playing By The Rules.”

The shift, in other words, has been has been away from thought and towards action. It mimics the decline of the public intellectual and the rise of the “hustle”, the latter growing up in Silicon Valley among coders in garages and venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. Hustling: from the world of gangs and live fast, die young, to the world of t-shirts, computers and “fail fast”. The “hustle” is a response to a world seen as too focused on thought; it is a backlash against a world too intellectual, the world of professors of philosophy who spend their lives reflecting upon others’ reflections upon life. Far better, the hustle imagines, to do, to act, and to “make a difference”. Change the world. In this conception, progress is seen as coming exclusively from action, not thought—if you’re talking you’re not walking, if you’re thinking you’re not winning. 

The term “hack”, which has now entered daily language and the titles of numerous blogs I read, has clear origins. Urban Dictionary, ever-accurate, suggests “a clever solution to a tricky problem”. A coder in a garage gets stuck on a tricky problem in an algorithm, but sits up with it long enough, drinks enough Red Bull, and develops a clever solution. The next day his mother dies; but he knows that if he looks for it (or cogitates on it for a moment) there will be a clever solution somewhere, an “elegant” way of dealing with his feelings. LifeHacker matches the coder’s website HackerNews: there is no longer anything to separate life’s problems and those of web development. Two professors recently brought out a book based on their popular Stanford course: Design Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Build it, as Jobs and Wozniak once built the Macintosh; design it, as Facebook designs its icons.

Productivity cults sprang up to match the new hustle mentality with the technologies that Silicon Valley was creating. In 2001 we get the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, as if the markets’ failures a year before were simply a failure of productivity. David Allen’s book soon creates “GTD” cults of those committed to squeezing every bit of “value” out of their minutes and seconds (the author boasts of having more than 35 different careers by age 35—a fact to be obscured at all costs anywhere other than in this brave new world). 

A drive towards productivity was hardly unique to that era. But what made this something different, something more far-reaching, was how the idea of the “hustle” developed among precisely those people who were building technologies that the rest of the world would soon use. Consumer technologies were developed in their creators’ image—an image of productivity, efficiency and action. 

It is tempting to speak of big-brother-like powers and the forces of authority. But the deadening of the philosophical imagination is far more innocent than all that. Paul Starr’s important book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications sets about showing, very effectively, this: that “The constraints in the architecture of technical systems and social institutions are rarely so clear and overpowering as to compel a single design.” The technologies we end up with are not at all inevitable—they could have taken on multitudes of other forms. And yet “At times of decision—constitutive moments, if you will—ideas and culture come into play… ”

Those directly involved in the creation of technologies are not aware of the ideas and culture that constrict their work, and nor do they see how those restrictions will extend, through their devices, apps and websites, to the minds of all those who use them. Yet through these constitutive moments, Silicon Valley’s hackers have inadvertently shaped our present philosophical imagination.

Why say in 1000 words what you can say in 140 characters? Why keep a commonplace book when you can save everything into Evernote and search it in an instant? Why send letters when email, and nowadays Facebook Messenger, are so freakishly efficient? In a world that believes in action over thought, life over reflection, brevity is the order of the day. Eloquence is for professors condemned to reflect on others who once did.

As Facebook and Twitter became mainstream, so too did the concepts of life that undergird them. We never saw it happen, but in beginning to think in 140 characters the public took on the hustle mindset. In writing emails instead of letters we too came to favour brevity over eloquence. In using an iPhone, productivity and efficiency become our ends rather than our means.

— — — — 

There will be no women or men of letters in the age of action. The mundanity of email precludes their existence. 

The term always meant something more expansive than the actual letters that those men and women wrote. But correspondence was symptomatic of the minds behind them. To read letters themselves is an experience in seeing the development of a philosophy—the disagreements a mind had with itself, the examination of ideas from many angles, the contradiction of oneself through dialogue. The Waste Land came to us fully formed, and it was only years after Eliot’s death that we could see the fraught years behind the philosophy. For a finished work shows none of its process, none of the internal wrangling and grappling that genuine thought requires—“A line will take us hours maybe;/ Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught,” Yeats put it. The paradox of all genuine philosophy: it must appear fully-formed and complete, yet behind it must stand insecurity and hesitancy.

None of that today; no hesitancy. Philosophies on life’s greatest problems are formed in an instant, and no years of struggle or dialogue stand behind them. The technologies of craft and communication discourage, if not outright prevent it. 

Email, Twitter, Facebook—technologies created by those who came of intellectual age (to give them the benefit of the doubt) during the time and in the place of the hustle, of productivity, of action. As a car drives on roads so our minds move along the tracks society lays. The car can turn any direction we wish—over there, over that grassy field, quick, round the corner, through the first gate, into our first world. But turn that direction it does not; on asphalt it stays. Our minds too are free to leave the tracks laid for us, but they do not. It does not occur to us to turn off, and even if it did, we wouldn’t know where to turn.

The three parts of the development of bulletpoint philosophy: 1. The development of communities and a culture that favour action over thought, productivity over reflection, hustle over cogitation. 2. The extension of that culture into consumer technologies through Starr’s “constitutive choices”. 3. The restriction of minds to those roads that technology lays. 

Write me a profound email and I will post you a letter. Profundity seems not to occur to one on a busy screen, sent from an “address” containing the @ of the internet and a corporate logo (I use Gmail). Insight seems difficult when one is interrupted, constantly, by the dings of incoming messages; or when the ‘note’ you are about to send will soon make a swooshing, whooshing noise from your computer’s speakers, as those messenger pigeons take flight. There is something childlike and innocent about these technologies, whether it be the colourful, playful letters of Google staring at you from the upper left-hand corner, or the conversion of brackets and colons into smiling yellow faces. Everywhere there are reminders that the ‘hacker’ who made this tool is the same person who last week published on Medium, “I Lost an Argument with a Vegan. Here’s what I Learned.”

There will be no collected letters published, no record of the growth of great minds. If emails are kept at all, their content will match the mundanity of their form. Instead we get 86 million answers to the meaning of life, each posted immediately and without reflection or correspondence.

Sometimes, it seems, everyone is a philosopher and no one a thinker. 

— — — — 

Perhaps sensing the debasement of philosophy in the public realm, professors of philosophy have turned inwards. They have tried to re-intellectualise the discipline that now seems so un-intellectual. It is an honest response, perhaps even a noble one. But of course they pulled on the public pendulum slightly too firmly. They overcompensated.

Professors of philosophy killed philosophy, as Thoreau told us, but they now find themselves in the position of trying to resuscitate it. Yet as in politics, so in the academy: as bulletpoint philosophy took over the middle ground, professors of philosophy found themselves retreating far further to the wings, back to a kind of “core base”. If the public’s philosophy was now too easy to understand, professors certainly made it less so. Now no one understands them. 

One article, noting upon the death of Derek Parfit, put it: “Parfit was an outstanding philosopher. However, few people outside academic philosophy could name one of his books.” Tellingly, the same article notes the 1950s to the 1990s as the “golden age” of academic philosophy. I have dated the growth of bulletpoint philosophies to the late 1990s. 

Academic philosophy is now more impenetrable than ever before. Parfit’s On What Matters was published in 2011, and readers are presented with two volumes of clearly rigorous thinking on… what? Moral philosophy, but what more can a lay-reader say? Academic philosophy has always been written for small circles in the thought that it would in its own way “trickle down”, through those educated at universities, into organisations and public debate. But when academic philosophers write more than ever for themselves, and when the public has shifted away from public intellectuals towards bulletpoint philosophy, those who can stand with a foot in both worlds, able to translate one for the other, are few. (Sontag, where are you?)

We’re now in the old high-brow, low-brow binary. Professors of philosophy don’t read bulletpoint philosophy, and dismiss all those who do, retreating back into their own circles of self-satisfied work. Those who read bulletpoint philosophy don’t understand a word of what those professors write, and so cannot “lift” their intellectual sights. As with politics, so with philosophy: the area of intersection in views is now nowhere to be found. Left and right have never been further apart, never less able to reconcile differences, and philosophy has never before been wrenched to such extremes. This state of affairs is self-perpetuating. Oil and water do not mix.

I hold my iPhone close to my chest when reading bulletpoint philosophy because I do not want to be seen in public reading such stuff. It is a high-brow response to lower-brow work; a philosophical equivalent of Clement Greenberg being seen reading The New Yorker. I am blameworthy for this, I’m sure. Better, these days, to be like Sontag, to embrace all culture. But even she recanted that view. Culture must have some moral depth, she seemed to say in her later work.

— — — — 

I should be pleased by the simplification of philosophy, by its return to more direct intervention in people’s lives. The academicism of philosophy has frustrated me deeply—my college philosophy classes are notable only for how removed they were from anything resembling wisdom and life (I’ve not had a Cavell). I’ve been drawn to stoicism for its directness, its sincerity in helping with the problems of life. Stoicism was (is) my youthful overcompensation to what I saw as the irrelevance of academic philosophy. Bulletpoint philosophy is similarly direct, and similarly earnest. (Seneca would write on Medium should he write today). So why do I resist it?

Partly it is having read enough philosophy to know the difference, and to know that bulletpoint philosophies do not deserve a claim to philosophy at all. But again, that is just a high-brow response. The contradiction in it is that if the test of real philosophy is its helpfulness in living life, then bulletpoint philosophies can indeed claim that. And yet still I resist; still I look for some genuine reasons to justify my aversion. I shall hazard some:

  • Form, more than content, contains powerful lessons. And life is shown to be simple by the simplicity of the bulletpoint form. (The bulletpoint is the essence of simple form: it merely posits, while eschewing any regard for order or argumentative development.) We are therefore led astray, simplifying life when what we need most is to understand its complexity—to understand that we may not understand it all. 
  • The subtextual lesson we learn from bulletpoint philosophies is that there is a simple, external answer for all of our problems. That the sole difficulty is in finding the right answer; as if application did not matter.
  • Philosophy is turned into statements of certainty via bulletpoints. It comes here strangely close to science. In a weird way this is continuous with at the other extreme the pre-eminence of analytic philosophy (intended to produce rigour and a degree of certainty unknown to the continental tradition—to move philosophy closer to science, in other words). But philosophy’s necessity is in answering all those human concerns that science can never answer. Science tells how to do, not what should be done. Our age is in dire need of the latter; our problem is too much of the former.
  • Value is placed on information over understanding. Find the bulletpoints, the logic says, and your problems will be solved. Philosophy of old knew that the challenge lay in understanding philosophy in terms of one’s own life. Its form, leading us along in prose and metaphor and ideas, aids the business of understanding. It thereby leads to real wisdom—wisdom being applied knowledge. Bulletpoint philosophy is readily understood in terms of its words, but this paradoxically hinders us from application.
  • There is no philosophical dialogue. We do not enter into the great debate. We simply consume tenuous self-help, as we consume the news, needing our next fix the following morning.
  • Complexity is seen as deficiency. Simplicity is the order of the day. But some ideas are complex, and can only be expressed as such. 
  • We are given no sense of philosophical categories or oppositions. We are simply given a worldview without any understanding of what else might exist, or what the counterarguments are. 
  • Genuine philosophy is often complex because human lives are so complex. We cannot solve the problems of life like we can solve a blocked drain, by searching Google for a local plumber.

— — — — 

Bulletpoint philosophy proves this, if little else: that life’s problems are keenly felt. In its proliferation, questions of the soul have been directly asked, and directly answered. 

In history political turbulence has often been met with a turning inwards, and the inwards-looking world of philosophy is both a challenge and an answer to dictators and fascists. The period of the Warring States in China gave us Confucianism and Mohism, Legalism and Daoism. French existentialism grew out of the carnage of the Second World War. Philosophy says to tyrants: you can challenge my possessions and my material existence, but I have another life which you cannot see nor understand nor diminish. 

What I’m getting at is that philosophy laughs at Trump. Bulletpoint philosophy, however, is understood by him. 

Suddenly cynicism of sincerity seems outdated. Postmodernism mocked questions of the meaning of life, but Trump mocks the postmodern. If it was a politics that took itself too seriously that led to the ironic mode, it is a politics that embarrasses itself that draws us back to earnestness. 

Academic philosophy takes itself so seriously to the point of impenetrability. Bulletpoint philosophy sees itself with an ironic expression, and thinks that more than 1000 words on the meaning of life were to risk sincerity. An age as fraught as ours will turn back into philosophy as a kind of spirituality. Let us hope, then, that the philosophy it encounters is a genuine philosophy, and not one built on the flawed poles of equations and bulletpoints.

What can I say? Alain de Botton seems to have it right after all.

 


 

This essay was completed in March 2017.

Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.

The Meaning of School

At what point or time would we ever come to reflect on the true meaning of a word (and, really, a world) we have understood so clearly since age four or five?

School is the place we went every day between ages five and eighteen to sit in classrooms with rows of desks, to listen to teachers, to read books, and to work hard. It is a place, it is an environment, it is an idea, and yet even being all those things, we have no reason to question it. School is, in many ways, our childhood and our adolescence.

But in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper writes nonchalantly of how skole in Greek, scola in Latin, meant leisure. It is from here that we derive the English school, meaning, to most of us, leisure’s opposite.

The etymology struck me as only the most obvious ideas, too long hidden, seem to do. Of course school, a place of learning, should be derived from the idea of leisure. Studies have shown that students accelerate most in their learning over summer holidays (which explains a large part of the effect of socioeconomic status on learning outcomes, as students of wealthier families will have more books and other resources at home). Most students themselves will know they learn a great deal when reading for pleasure. Some of the most productive learning time may be spent relaxing on a couch, staring at a laptop screen while stuck in a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Waking up on a Sunday morning in summer with nothing to do all day but read a book has been the most meaningful time I’ve spent learning.

And yet school is a place of hard work. It is hectic, rushing between classes, there is homework each day, there are exams to cram for, too many books to read. From the Greek word for leisure we now derive an institution of busyness and hard work, which the original etymology shows us is precisely the opposite to how learning was thought to take place. Whence and why the shift?

I suppose Ken Robinson’s answer in his famous TED talk may come closest, the idea being that the Industrial Revolution necessitated a change in education that brought it to replicate a production line. But regardless of the cause, school today probably does other things aside from the ideal leisure=learning that are worth maintaining.

The trick, I think, is in our own lives in education, and perhaps our childrens’, to not lose sight of the original ideal of how learning takes place; to carve out time for leisure, and to avoid the trap of leisure guilt. It is to know what learning means to us, and find time for that at all costs, regardless of the time we spend in the school=busyness world.

A Sense of Motion Without Moving

We treat productivity as if it were an objective task, something clear and defined that we must all pursue.

The notion of productivity itself requires an endpoint, a goal. Productivity is a means to something else (even if, much of the time, we seem trapped into thinking of it as its own end). To treat productivity as objective requires, then, that we have in mind the same endpoint to productivity as everyone else.

And that endpoint isn’t too hard to decipher. It consists in checking off tasks, being efficient in one’s work so that one may get a promotion or advance in some vague sense. Productivity is the means of moving through the world faster.

That is despite Parker Palmer’s forewarning that “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on”.

If one sees through that endpoint, one sees through the trap of productivity thinking. If you don’t believe in moving upwards, forwards, onwards for its own sake, you cannot believe in productivity as we are forced to pursue it. 

To believe in both that hollow endpoint and the notion of productivity is merely to have, in Ray Bradbury’s words, a sense of motion without moving.

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever”

I recently found a note from 2011 in my to-do list. I was still in my second to last year of high school at the time, clearly frustrated and bored and wanting something more. The note, set with a due date of December 2011, reads:

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever. Everyone is made to want good grades and the better grades you get the more brainwashed you are.”

I haven’t written the story. I don’t know if I ever will, or if I even know how to. But I rediscovered it at a good time. I’m neck-deep in my penultimate year of college and somehow seem expected to plan a life while juggling endless assignments and extracurriculars. The fog of each week’s deliverables can blind me even to the week after, and the longer-term future can seem enveloped in such a mist that thought about it is futile, at best, and likely even dangerous. With the fog of busyness comes an inevitable forgetfulness about the past. We think endlessly about the present, and at times the future—the present, because that is where those assignments loom, and the future, because that is supposedly what all this is for—but rarely about the past.

The truth is that the inevitable presentness (presentism does not quite describe it) of college and the culture of busy led me to believe that my preoccupation with education was a recent one. My friends will attest, perhaps even protest, that I spend too much time these days thinking and talking about the meaning of our education. I had come to think that college had given me a new perspective on my prior education, and that my fascination with these systems was a newfound interest. I’d been completely blinded by the present to how long-standing this interest and my frustration had been.

When we are told to find the causes we truly care about we look to how we feel at present. That’s logical, but this episode has shown me that the right place to look is probably the past. What are the things that have preoccupied you over a longer period of time, never as a blinding passion, but as a frustration and concern? I’ve now found more and more notes from over the years—even as far back as primary school—on the education system in some form or another. Who knows what I’ll do with it, but seeing how this has concerned me over a longer period comes as a sense of security and clarity that this is not an interest that will die anytime soon.

Back to the note. What to make of it?

Reading it brought back a strong sense of how I was feeling at the time I must have penned it. From years nine through eleven (roughly ages 13-16) I had felt immensely creative and productive. There was a period during which I was working for multiple news and media companies, writing articles daily, giving speeches (about education, no less), traveling to conferences. It was a ridiculous life for a high school student, but the sheer number of ideas I felt I was having meant I didn’t want to slow down or put it off. People are simply creative at different times. But as I entered my last two years of high school and the workload picked up it had eventually become a choice: do the work, get the grades, go to university, or stop and focus on all this. I wavered, even at one point chose the latter, but ultimately committed to school.

Immediately I felt as though my creativity was crushed. I no longer had a continuous stream of ideas to write into essays and articles, the number of thoughts and ideas I was recording in notebooks dropped and then ended entirely. The search for productivity made me focus on so many small things that I had nothing left with which to think about the larger. Parker Palmer describes precisely this in his commencement address on “Living from the Inside Out”: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

“Brainwashing” now seems strong and too Orwellian/Kafkaesque, but that’s how it felt at the time.

It was not a function of time. I was busy, but certainly could have found time to write and give occasional speeches. The problem was that the more I read and memorised my textbooks—the more I studied and learned to give the answers that would get me an A—the less clearly and creatively I could think. I filled my mind with little things, and forgot how to think about the larger. It became a direct relationship in my mind, an economic law: better grades leads to lower creativity & less thoughtfulness, and vice versa.

Of course, it’s not the grades themselves leading to lower creativity, but what good grades require: a relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption of facts, memorisation, in-the-box thinking. I think the hope for ambitious and creative students lies in analysing what exactly it is that good grades require, and seeing whether those can be done in ways that don’t require such a trade-off. Yet there might still come point when a decision is needed on whether one is willing to sacrifice the As for creativity and mindfulness. There isn’t a correct answer there, but rather an important personal decision.

Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.

I laughed when I first read the note. “School is the biggest trick ever.” How inevitable it is that we laugh at ourselves as we grow intellectually, and the simplicity and surety of the statement certainly makes me chuckle. But the sense of it still remains in me. My education, including at college, has been a struggle to learn while maintaining a sense of creativity and self. College has been better, the most stimulating years of my life, especially since coming to understand the meaning of the liberal arts and becoming free to pursue that kind of learning. But that core concern embedded in my note—the brainwashing, the reductionism of education—still gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, even if today I laugh at my sixteen-year-old self.

Learning How To Do Nothing

I don’t remember the crash.

I was riding my bike in a race at West Point, the United States Military Academy. The peloton of over 80 riders was moving fast, over 60km/h, on a gradual downhill section. It was a wonderfully sunny day, one of the first since a New England winter that had sucked the vitality out of landscapes and people, and everyone was riding hard but still able to enjoy the springlike roads and scenery. I was right in the middle of the pack of riders, sheltered from the wind, and as the speeds picked up on the downhill I had that magical feeling that comes from riding in a group at high speeds—the smooth sound of aerodynamic bodies and bikes slicing through the wind, the clicking of expensive freehubs rotating as sheltered riders pedalled softly. The riders around me all had the same feeling, and we couldn’t help but exchange grins despite being competitors.

A slight unexpected movement amongst the riders ahead of me. Then I’m on my back on the concrete, my legs tangled at inhuman angles with my bike, one foot still clipped into a pedal, and I’m doing mental checks to determine the damage to my body. Pain everywhere, blood down my left arm and leg, an intense, sharp jabbing pain in my tailbone, difficulty moving my right leg. I didn’t know it at the time—it must have been the adrenaline—but the tailbone wasn’t my main concern. The medics, when they reached me after checking on some of the other riders who had broken bones, noticed immediately that my helmet was shattered. I still don’t know if I had passed out or for how long, but the pain and dizziness in my head hit me a few hours later while I waited to be seen in a nearby hospital.

Concussion. Which, my doctor tells me, science still knows relatively little about. I was prescribed ’cognitive rest’, which essentially involves this: do nothing to stress your brain, in the same way you wouldn’t work out after pulling a muscle. No reading, no intense conversations, no laptop, and as little phone as possible. Maintain this regimen until you feel better.

The first couple of days after my crash were confusing and irritating, and I cannot emphasise the difficulty I had in avoiding the magnet-like pull of my phone to my hand. But with time came ease of thought and a clarity of mind that I have not felt before. There just seemed to be so much time. From the moment I woke up and proceeded  to not spend the next ten minutes checking emails and Facebook, life was slower and more internal. Each hour lasted longer, and evenings stretched on. It was an unbelievable change from the busyness and rushing and stress and the feeling that there was never enough time in a day that I’d had throughout the previous week, month, years.

I kept wondering what to do with my eyes. Over breakfast I stared into my coffee, stared into my bowl, stared blankly at the table, and felt absurd for not doing anything. I couldn’t pretend to read a newspaper and couldn’t pull out my phone, which is our automatic act whenever faced with being alone with nothing else to do. I feared what people would think of me sitting alone and just staring, doing nothing at all other than thinking.

Our society is one that seeks productivity and disdains anything that isn’t, so much so that the feeling of what I call leisure guilt is one most of us are familiar with. Leisure guilt is that niggling in the mind during activities we find pleasurable but which don’t involve a laptop. I get it when I’m out cycling or when I go for a walk, when I spend a little too long with friends over dinner talking politics, and when I’m reading a book unrelated to schoolwork. I’ve even had leisure guilt when spending too long on class readings I’m enjoying, because I should be moving on more quickly to other tasks. Leisure guilt says this isn’t going to help you achieve anything, get back to work.

If we feel leisure guilt even when reading or discussing politics with friends it’s no surprise we feel it when doing precisely nothing. Doing nothing these days usually involves lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram; it needs to be distinguished from properly doing nothing nothing. The latter can even seem impossible. Who these days sits on a park bench with their hands on their knees and stares into space? Where would you even look? Wouldn’t people think you’re strange? And if you do try it, the urge to pull out your phone can become all too great to resist.

Another word for doing nothing is ‘daydreaming’, which is often used as an insult. It implies unproductiveness, impracticality, a head in the clouds. No one wants to be called a daydreamer, that person alone on the park bench staring awkwardly into space. Yet with my concussion, unable to be productive and do things, I could really only do exactly that—sit on a bench in the sun at Yale’s Cross Campus and daydream, letting my mind wander as it pleased.

Daydreaming is the antithesis of productivity. Productivity is to be sought and daydreaming avoided, society says. Where daydreaming at its best still leads to nothing tangible, productivity gives us the pleasure of ticking off to-dos, sending emails, reading pages, writing words and crunching numbers. Productivity leads to results we can see, and makes us feel good about ourselves. With limited time each day and a culture of busy, who would consciously take time to daydream, to do nothing?

But what crashing my bicycle taught me is that we undervalue doing nothing—and even if we realise its value, it is a process to learn how to do it.

The truth is that without daydreaming our productive time may be spent on activities that weren’t worth pursuing in the first place. To focus solely on productivity, without ever giving ourselves space and time to daydream, is like starting to cook a meal before knowing what you want to eat or even having a recipe. It is to ask yourself a more specific question before asking yourself the larger question that determines which specific questions to ask. You don’t go to the supermarket before asking yourself whether you even need anything, and you don’t start cooking before knowing what you’re making. And yet when it comes to productivity, we frequently fill our days with tasks before giving ourselves the space to ask whether those tasks are ones we ultimately want or need to be doing in the first place.

Life sweeps our bicycles out from under us. Had I not had time to do nothing, I would have learned nothing from my crash. Yet having had this time, I maintain that daydreaming’s most important function is in giving us the mental space to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and our lives. Productivity is merely time spent, never to be recovered, unless it is done with a purpose that is well understood. We must give ourselves the time and space to form the blueprints of our lives, and to do that we must realise the absurdity of our leisure guilt.