Curating the Consumables

March 29, 2011

I love to read. My apartment is filled with books, my computer is filled with saved articles and ‘to read’ lists, my web browser is filled with bookmarks for too many amazing news sites and blogs to even begin to list here. There is not much I enjoy more in the world than listening to people talk about the things they’re passionate about, and I could be totally engaged by someone explaining the evolution of the garbage can if it’s apparent that that’s what they really care about in life.

Beyond reading, I also love watching TED talks, for many of the same reasons.

There are also several hundred films in my Netflix queue, all of which are beautiful testaments to their creators’ will to bring life to their pie-in-the-sky ideas, many of which will be enlightening and informative viewing experiences.

There are also some pretty darn good television shows out there (blasphemy for a blog these days, I know). There are brilliant podcasts; musicians creating unique and powerful pieces; museums to go to, plays to attend, and sights to see.

It’s a lot. It’s a ton.

Even discarding the copious amount of crap that is undeniably present in the larger mix, there’s a somewhat unfathomable amount of consumable material in the world. And enough of it is so worthwhile, interesting, and inspirational that you could easily spend all of your life simply devouring it.

And this is where things get a little problematic. Because you can’t experience it all.

I’m never going to see all the TED talks. I may never even get through all the books on my ‘to read’ shelf. Most of those Netflix movies will stay exactly where they are.

Every once in awhile I have to re-recognize this truth, and it happened yet again yesterday, just after I read JD’s Miscellaneous Flotch post on Get Rich Slowly. He linked to some fabulously-interesting sounding articles across the web, and I found myself with three additional tabs open in Firefox after finishing his recommendations. Which only added to the two New Yorker tabs, three New York Times tabs, one for email, and yet another for Google Reader (itself a bit of a rabbit hole) that were already there. All told, I had a good hour and a half of reading ahead of me if I wanted to clear the deck. And not even the whole deck, really — more just the space in my immediate vicinity.

I cannot consume it all, and the attempt to do so is made at the cost of other endeavors I value in life.

An hour and a half of reading means an hour and a half that isn’t spent running or writing or biking or being out in the world establishing new relationships. It can certainly inform these activities and perhaps allow me to execute them better or inspire a new creative direction to pursue, but a balance point must be sought where consumption and creation complement each other, rather than spar for my time and attention.

Ultimately, I think the safer bias to have when seeking this balance point is less consumption and more creation.

It’s hard. It’s hard to have what looks to be an amazing piece right in front of you and close the tab anyway. It’s hard to close a book that just isn’t cutting it (actually I don’t think this is terribly difficult for a lot of people, but it’s definitely something I suffer from — ‘maybe it will pick up next chapter!’). It’s hard to admit that as much as you’d like to read the entire archive of Seth’s Blog, it might be okay to just keep up with his new stuff.

Difficult as it is, there’s also a certain peace about recognizing the futility of the effort and accepting that you have the power to curate your own experience. You aren’t ‘missing out’ on all the amazing things you don’t consume, you’re experiencing all the amazing things you decide are worth your time. You are also giving yourself the gift of enough time and brainspace to do your dearest work.

It’s an active, conscious decision to curate. It doesn’t happen on its own. But once made, it’s an empowering one that will give the gift of time — the scarcest resource.

Creating Value

March 22, 2011

Two articles:
The Frustrations of the Educated and Unemployed American
Here’s the Real Story of What’s Happening in Tunisia: A Higher Education Bubble

Both pieces explore the idea that the most dangerous group of people for a government to fail to accommodate and look out for is its college-educated population — unemployment rates among degree-holders in both Tunisia and Egypt are in the realm of 30-50%, and not that much lower in the US. An extraordinarily precarious situation is created when fewer jobs are available than there are qualified, educated applicants, and when people spend 17 (or more) years preparing themselves for the workforce only to find they’re unwanted, the psychological, social, and cultural effects can be disastrous and long-lasting.

Now I understand the devastation of unemployment. I really do. But I look at the ideas espoused in these pieces and I listen to the rhetoric of today’s political discourse, and I am confused.

It strikes me that practically the entire planet has set up their education systems to churn out workers who will fit cleanly into preëxisting positions and careers. We wind up with a largely similar base of knowledge, and tend to specialize just enough to fuel a satisfying (but not overwhelming) sense of individuality and theoretically to better prepare us for our “chosen” fields.

It’s a great big assembly line that includes the construction of the operators.

But it has become increasingly apparent over the last decade or so that the balance of this system is out of whack — we’re front-loading the line to create more operators at the same time as we’re making the back half of the line more efficient so we need fewer. And we’re not doing anything about it. The imbalance just perpetuates.

When I read about disaffected college graduates who haven’t been able to find meaningful, relevant work and have moved back home with their parents, I find myself wondering how we have so thoroughly failed to train students (and subsequently the adults they become) to create value. The idea that there will be a job available someday as a reward for decades of effort in school is so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that when it doesn’t happen, devastatingly few people even think to regroup and approach their problem from a different angle. They just retreat to Starbucks and the lifeguard stand and Mom and Dad’s house.

Which is all wildly, excessively insane, because  the resources necessary to create a business, to explore the viability of niches in the market, to be innovative are EVERYWHERE!

Behold, the real power of the Information Age: you don’t have to wait to fill a position someone else says is valuable. You can create your own position that you decide and know and feel is valuable and worthwhile.

The potential here is incredible — imagine generations of workers who don’t dread ‘going to the office’ everyday. Imagine if we all actually cared about what we did. The social and economic impact would be outrageous — have you ever noticed how much more someone accomplishes when they’re excited about what they’re doing?

Every single high school student should be required to take an Intro to Business course that covers how to navigate the legal structures, licenses, permits, and bureaucracy involved in starting a small business. Every community college or community center should be offering these classes to the local population — if municipalities offered them for free they would probably make up the investment through increased tax revenue in a matter of just a few years. Since they won’t do this, I imagine there’s a pretty lucrative opportunity for some, ahem, small businesses to enter the pictures across the country and around the world to fill in this gap.

Every single high school student should be required to take an Intro to Marketing course that helps them learn how to display and prove the value they bring to the table to their appropriate market. Every single high school student should be required to take a class where they’re just told every day, “It is absolutely, completely, 100% fine if you don’t become a lawyer, doctor, or teacher. It is your life and you are entitled to actively choose what to do with it.

I hope and want to believe that the evolution in the general public’s mindset will inevitably evolve to accommodate the new era, but this revolution seems to not even be on the horizon yet. Odd, for such a simple, accessible message:

Don’t wait for value. Create it.

I recently had an encounter with a friend of mine who I don’t see particularly often. She’s an actress and a singer, and during our conversation I learned she had found herself producing a short series of television shows for kids through some obscure chain of connections, acquaintances, and opportunities.

Now, producing a TV show is not easy. Not even a little. The producer has his or her hands on absolutely every step of the process, from pre-production to post-production, and is often the only one with an eye on the big picture and larger arc of the project. It can be a stressful, sleepless job, and generally is craziest just before it’s all done. This is where my friend was when we spoke. I asked if she’d had a chance to consider what was coming next — what she was thinking of doing with the experience.

“You know,” she said, “it’s kind of an odd thing.”

“I could keep going. It turns out I’m actually pretty good at this, and this one little gig has opened up doors that would lead to some fantastic opportunities, and ultimately could make for a really comfortable living. And I can’t kid myself — I’m no Julia Roberts or Celine Dion. The odds of making it ‘big’ in either of those worlds that I’ve been exploring for the first part of my career is pretty dang small.”

“But I sort of feel like I went to Madison Square Garden with a soccer ball. I was just looking for somewhere to play when I walk onto an unfamiliar court with a game going on, and suddenly a basketball gets tossed my way. I start dribbling and passing out of instinct, you know, just trying to keep up with the people around me so I don’t get clobbered.”

“So I keep dribbling and passing and somebody says, ‘Hey Kid — you’re pretty good!’”

“And I mean, come on. Who doesn’t like to be told they’re good? Especially when they’re in the middle of a game in Madison Square Garden? So I start working a little harder, dribbling cleaner and running faster, trying to impress and such. And sure enough, soon someone else goes, ‘Kid — you wanna play for the NBA?’”

“And I sort of feel like that’s where I am right now. The allure of the lights and fame — such as it is, what with it not actually being the NBA and all — is pretty damn compelling. But then I find myself looking over at the bench, and see my lonely soccer ball just… sitting there.”

“If I do this, if I ride this wave, I’ll have a blast. And I’ll be successful. And it’ll be fine. But I didn’t get into it because I was crap at soccer and needed an alternative, it was just a little cosmic accident. And honestly I’m not ready to give up my small-time success and journey for the first shiny alternative that comes along. Because small-time for this thing that I love, that completely resonates with my sense of self… it’s just not something I can walk away from so easily. And believe me, I’ve tried to convince myself to do it. Turns out though that for me, it’s worth spending some more time wandering around the Garden, looking for the right game.”


March 15, 2011

I always have something to say.

I perpetually find myself looking to tease some obscure lesson out of a situation, or working to unearth an unexamined layer. There is almost always something there.

But as I watch the situation unfold in Japan, I find I have nothing to contribute. The scale of what is going on is simply larger than my capacity for comprehension. And while this is partially a testament to my personal need for more experience, I have a feeling it wouldn’t be much easier to understand if I were standing amidst the wreckage in Natori or in a control room at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.

Our little brains can only handle so much. Often more than we think, but occasions do arise when they simply are no match for the magnitude of what the world is capable of throwing at us.

And very occasionally, the world decides to give it everything it’s got.

These are moments when we feel we are absolutely fighting for our lives. And when we escape with life intact but survey the damage, it still feels like a loss.

We can prepare and plan and act with caution, but ultimately there’s not a damned thing you can do about a 20-foot wall of water headed your way.

I wish I knew how this “should” affect my life. Affect the world. Once again, I want to find the lesson. That lesson may require a wait though… it may be in the reaction to the moment, not the moment itself.

We’re a people, not simply a world of persons. And as much as we are each beautifully unique individuals, every one of us is a very small part of everyone else.

Ultimately we move on. Time passes, which is both searingly painful and a sweet relief. We keep living. The world continues turning.

Again, I have nothing of real value to give. Money, sure. But I can’t cool the reactors, search through wreckage, or soothe a panicked and desperate soul. I have only feelings. Woefully inadequate feelings. Sorrow, fear, devastation, empathy… a million unnameable sensations. But one of those is the absolute confidence that the Japanese people and the people of this earth will find they have the capacity to overcome, move on, and thrive.

American Red Cross
Doctors Without Borders

I left my job about a month ago. After two and a half post-college years at a studio in the city, it was finally time to branch out on my own and explore the world as a freelancer. So off I went.

It has been, rather unsurprisingly, a Transition, and one huge component to this large change is the addition of the hustle to my daily activities. I’m hustling for audio gigs, I’m exploring a couple change-the-world-type ideas, and I’ve also got it in my mind that I’d quite like to work part-time as a personal assistant to an entrepreneur. Over the last year or two I’ve become increasingly interested in business, and I imagine there’s no better way to learn how to run one than by helping someone do it. So part of my activities every day have focused on finding a person I can help be successful and who will be a good teacher (whether they mean to be or not) in a field I’m new to.

Applications, cover letters, and résumés have therefore been sent out and a fair amount of time has been devoted to perusing the internet for the opportunity I’m looking for. About a week and a half ago an ad popped up on Craigslist that just resonated with me. It described exactly the sort of position I had envisioned; the guy who posted it seemed to have a great attitude, and made several rather esoteric references that seemed to indicate a significant like-mindedness between the two of us. I spent the better part of two hours crafting my response. End scene.

I like to wake up early. Not hardcore early, like some people, but I’m usually up around 7 or 7:30 (which is actually earlier than was standard when I had a consistent job to be at every morning). It gives me time to write, read, make breakfast, and sit quietly with a good cup of tea before I must join the rest of the world. If I can start the day this way — calmly, productively, and with a quiet mind — I can generally rock afterward until early afternoon. Aside from occasionally letting the Morning Joe crew in on this time, it’s about the only glowing-screen-free period of my day.

There’s a caveat there though: I usually set an alarm. Said alarm is an application on my phone, and therefore during the very first moment I’m awake on these days, I find myself half-conscious with the internet in the palm of my hand. Without really thinking, on the vast majority of these days I’ll quickly skim through my inbox to see if anything notable has come in. 19 days out of 20 (oh who am I kidding — 99 days out of 100 is probably closer to the truth) there’s nothing I care to look at until later and I move on.

You may see where this is going.

Earlier this week in my post-alarm-clock state I saw a response had come in about the PA position I’d been so sure would be perfect. In a spurt of excited adrenaline I immediately opened the message.

And on the other side of that instinctual screen tap there lived a rather curt rejection, that even took special care to note that a certain line I’d inserted with an intent to be humorous (or at the very least, light-hearted) was not at all appreciated or welcome.

Now this so, so far from a Big Deal. The guy clearly is not one of my Right People, and I am perfectly, absolutely okay with that. Not everyone is, and I feel no need to settle in this realm, to compromise and try to force a situation that doesn’t want to exist — why invest the significant energy required of any relationship when it won’t be beneficial to both me and whomever is on the other side of it?

Rejection is okay. Good, even.

It is a very powerful thing to experience it as the absolute first emotion of the day though. It’s even more powerful when it’s second and the first is elation, which does a pretty great job of accentuating that little psychological tumble down the mountain.

While I am perfectly content knowing I won’t always be perceived the way I intend and things won’t always work out the way I expect, and am absolutely capable of brushing off encounters that don’t go well, this time it really stuck with me throughout the day, imposing a vague sadness and pessimism I just could not shake. That initial emotional imprint is a strong one.

And quite frankly it’s a little ridiculous to let someone else (especially a complete stranger) have control over that moment, as I did. Even if I’d gotten the gig it would have made absolutely no difference to have found out at 8 o’clock instead of 7. I ceded control over my own state of being to the desire to know-right-now.

So no more. There is so little in my life that is that important, and anything that is certainly would not be arriving in the middle of the night via email. So I am sealing that crack, stopping the early inbox-peek, and taking over complete control of my mornings. My oatmeal, my brain, my emotions, and I will be much better for it.