August 5, 2021
How can we leverage our own limitations? Why does converting the average human lifespan from years to other units (like weeks) give us such a shock? What are the most useful kinds of reactions to contemplating our own mortality? What causes our feeling that time speeds up as we age? What is the "importance trap"? How should we handle the frustration or disappointment caused by our inability to do everything we want or need to do? Why is patience important in the world today? What information sets are available to us in various communication media? Is there — and should there be — a disconnect between the "meatspace" world and the internet world? Which kinds of self-help advice are actually useful?
Oliver Burkeman's new book is Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, published in the US on August 10, 2021. He is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, and he wrote a long-running weekly column on psychology, productivity, and self-help culture for The Guardian newspaper called "This Column Will Change Your Life." His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and New Philosopher magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can pre-order Four Thousand Weeks and sign up for Oliver's email newsletter "The Imperfectionist" at oliverburkeman.com or find him on Twitter at @oliverburkeman.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Oliver Burkeman about embracing lived experience, the “importance trap,” and limitation and finitude.
SPENCER: Oliver, welcome.
OLIVER: Thank you very much for inviting me.
SPENCER: Everyone these days reads self-help books, and they're always looking for what they can do to radically change their life in five minutes a day and this kind of thing. I think you bring your refreshing perspective. You're almost like the anti self-help person in some sense. So I'd really love to dig into some of your ideas on what's wrong with self-help today, why some of this stuff can be counterproductive, and how we can be slightly happier or slightly better off in our lives? How does it sound?
OLIVER: Sure, absolutely. That's my terrain.
SPENCER: Great. So the first idea I want to discuss with you is the idea of leveraging your limitations, which might sound like a contradiction. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?
OLIVER: Yeah. This idea turned out to be cropping up in all sorts of things that I was reading, writing about, and the report that I was doing. This essential notion that I think runs through a lot of the worst kinds of self-help and productivity advice is that what it effectively does is it enables us to carry on deluding ourselves that we don't have certain limitations — limitations of, most obviously, the quantity of time, limitations of the ability to control what happens and to know what the future holds, and all the rest of it. I think, as humans, as psychological beings, we have a very strong aversion to confronting these truths. And an awful lot of so-called self-help is sort of drafted in as an enabler to encourage the notion that one day in the future (it's never actually right now in the present, it never seems to actually happen), you might manage to become the perfectly optimized person. The person capable of dealing with an infinite number of incoming emails or implementing an infinite number of projects or demands on a job, or what it might be. The idea that I've been tracking through a whole lot of stuff and older philosophical work is that there's something incredibly empowering and actually liberating about anything that we can do to feel and tolerate the discomfort of confronting the ways in which we are actually finite and limited, and then working within those non-negotiable constraints to improve and to build fulfilling lives rather than being constantly in this kind of psychological flight from that truth. If that makes sense.
SPENCER: Yeah, so when you read self-help books, they tell you things like, "you can be exactly who you want to be", "you can overcome all your obstacles". People worship people like Elon Musk, who is the CEO of two companies, with a bunch of children and so on. And they may think, "I can do everything at once." I think you're saying that actually, there can be great value in accepting that we have limitations and not trying to work in this paradigm of “you can absolutely do everything.” You can't, and that means you actually have to prioritize.
OLIVER: Exactly. It means that opportunity cost exists. It means that trade-offs are real. I think one thing I'm always kind of anxious to point out about the writing that I do on this — maybe this is because there's a certain kind of British interpretation of this idea, which is that there's no point trying to do cool things in your life. There's no point trying to improve, everything sucks. And that is not what I mean. I think you can tell this, but that is not at all the point here. — It is precisely that we can gain a kind of purchase on our daily lives in a way that enables us to do the things we want to do by confronting the reality of them. In a way, I know that psychoanalysis is not a very fashionable lens for looking at any of this stuff these days. But in a way, this is the kind of insight that you can trace back, I think, to Freud and Jung. This idea that a lot of what we're doing is in the service of not experiencing certain emotions as opposed to what we tell ourselves it's for, which is to fulfill our ambitions and reshape our lives in the ways that we want. And that if you think in those terms, "in what ways is this piece of advice or this way of acting that I have, what is it helping me not feel, and how empowering could it be to actually learn ways to tolerate those feelings, instead?" I think it's an incredibly powerful lens for actually improving rather than marinating in the fantasy of one day coming perfect and optimal.
SPENCER: It seems like this interesting balance of trying to navigate between "I want to be a better version of myself, I want to always be improving", and also letting go of this idea of being perfect, letting go of this idea of "I'll have time for everything." So you kind of want to shrink that balance. You don't want to be too far on either extreme. Warren Buffett had this piece of advice, and I'll just paraphrase. I'm not gonna get it exactly right. But it was something like, "come up with a list of all the 20 things you want to do in your life, and then pick two of them and then forget about the other 18, because you're never going to get around to them", something along those lines. So I'm wondering, is that how you think about this?
OLIVER: Yeah, that's related, actually. I was gonna tell you the correct version of it but that's not correct, because I think it's now been proven that Warren Buffett never said it or something. But the most popular version of that anecdote is that he's in a conversation with his personal pilot, who asks him how to organize his goals and his life. And the idea is to make a list of your top 20 or 25 goals and pick the two or five that you want to focus on. But understand that the other ones are not just ones to get around to if you happen to get some extra time. They're the ones you should avoid at all costs, because they're the ones that are clearly sufficiently appealing to you to seem like a good investment of your finite time, but not sufficiently appealing to you to actually be in your top five or top two goals. So they are this very dangerous kind of middling priority. And I think we all can point to experiences like this, right? You can ask to be involved in some project, and you don't love it, but it seems moderately interesting, or you invest time in a friendship that isn't one of your key friendships, but it still does take enough time to just keep it ticking over. This idea of middling priorities is really powerful, because I think that does point to this idea. As soon as you really understand what it means to have limited time, that's when those kinds of goals need to drop out, because you're perceiving the trade-off. The fact that there's an opportunity cost here means that you can't just keep adding extra things to the list and hope that somehow you're going to build the time management system that’s so perfect that you can cram them all in.
SPENCER: I can see at least two different arguments for why people should try to focus a lot more. One of them basically just says, "If you try to do too many things, you're gonna water down your ability to do any of them." I tend to take on a lot of projects that this is something I think about a lot and struggle with. The other perspective is more like a power law perspective, which says, "If you rank all the things you want to do in your life, some of them actually might be much, much more valuable according to your values and others. And so one of them might be 10 times more valuable. So you should put your eggs into that basket, rather than the ones that have lower value". And I wonder if either of those two perspectives is more than one you're taking? Or do you think both of those are valid?
OLIVER: I think that they're both totally valid. It's to do with the techniques and tactical approaches that I explore in some of my work. It’s all to do with bringing this stuff into consciousness. Now, I tend to work on the assumption that most people have a good intuitive grasp of which things matter more to them than others, once they are conscious of the fact that these things are in competition for their time. But you can certainly go deeper into that side of the thing and really try to understand the specific things that count for 5-10 times as much value in your life as the other things. I think that one of the things that is so interesting about what goes wrong with a lot of conventional optimization, that kind of productivity and self-help stuff, is that it actually takes you further away from getting round to those things — and we can maybe discuss this a little bit later — but this basic idea that if you're not asking of incoming opportunities and projects, if you're not weighing them in any way against anything else, because you don't think there's a need to make choices between them, and obviously you're in a position of being vastly more likely to say yes to something because it feels like it's a cost-free agreement. Plus there is this background thing as well, that there is a certain ego boost, self-esteem boost in the mere fact of being too busy, right?
SPENCER: I've heard some people talk about these procedure activities where people eat up your time by giving you a sense of prestige. They're like, "Hey, do you want to come and give a presentation on this thing?" And people are like, "Oh, cool, what an opportunity." And maybe it is an opportunity, but also, you're doing free work, right?
OLIVER: Right. Right. Yeah.
SPENCER: It's like giving them content. Obviously, there are some that pay, but more often than not, you are doing free work. Is that actually good for you?
OLIVER: Right. And it's very hard to get your mind around. This reminds me of something. As a journalist, there's a big debate (especially as it applies to younger journalists) about whether you should ever do anything for free, should you ever write for publication that's telling you your reward will be prestige. And I always dissent a little bit from the prevailing view of slightly older journalists, which is never do anything at all if you're not being paid. There are contexts in which prestige has value. The real problem is it's so hard to quantify that anyone starting up a website with no budget is going to claim that appearing on their site is a source of immense prestige. Once you get into these emotional benefits, it's not that they're not real, it's just that they are so much harder to weigh against each other, because a convincing person who runs a website that has five readers telling you that, actually, it's immensely prestigious for you to be featured on it. And many can convince you because it's sort of short circuits that any attempt to calculate and weigh.
SPENCER: The irony is not lost on me that I asked you to do this conversation for free.
OLIVER: Well, yes, but you've got a lot of listeners. I didn't pause for a moment, so maybe that was foolish (laughing). Whatever you did it totally worked.
SPENCER: Well, hopefully, some people will buy your new book coming out if you want to mention that.
OLIVER: Sure. That's called 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals published beginning of August. And it's about all this stuff. It's about fully taking on board the ramifications of being finite. And using that as a way to get around to what really matters instead of constantly postponing it while you're busy doing all the other little stuff.
SPENCER: I know you've gone around asking people, "How many weeks do you think you have in human life?" Do you want to tell us about that?
OLIVER: Yeah. So the title 4000 Weeks refers very approximately to 80 years lifespan. And just translating it into weeks is kind of a shocking thing. Hopefully not so shocking that people run a mile from my book and rapidly click away to another site or something. But hopefully, just alarming enough to be intriguing. When I made that calculation, basically, I had a miniature nervous breakdown. But as soon as I recovered, I started asking friends, “Don't do any mental arithmetic, just off the top of your head, how many weeks do you think the average human life lasts?” And people were coming up with numbers like 100,000. I mean, smart people who if they thought about it in a mathematical sense for one minute would not have come up with those results, but in response to my accosting them and asking them to say without thinking. And the crazy thing about that is that 310,000 weeks is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. So, there's something about expressing it in this unit that is deeply arresting and makes it all too clear that not just our own individual lives but the whole of civilization is kind of lost in no time at all.
SPENCER: It is kind of shocking to phrase that way. I had this app on my phone for a while where when I would open up the Notification Center, it would show me an estimate of how many days I have left in my life. And while I think that some people would find that terrible and disturbing, I found it really motivating. I was like, "Okay, another day down," So I actually thought it was positive.
OLIVER: If that's going to work for you, that's brilliant. I do shy away from that idea in my writing on this. I hope that if this message is internalized, it isn't necessarily a recipe for white-knuckle, high-pressure "Oh my goodness, I've got to seize the day and every weekend skydiving or whatever.” Actually even that has in it an attempt to outrun, to sort of leap outside of limitation, right? It's still this idea that the only meaningful life would be one that was 20 times more packed with experience than the average person's, and I don't think that's certainly what research into what people find fulfilling reflects at all. So I hope that this message is kind of relaxing, in a strange way.
SPENCER: I don't know if I find it relaxing, but I feel that it gives me more —
OLIVER: Motivating and relaxing, so not overly anxiety inducing, is hoping.
SPENCER: I feel like for me, it gives me some feeling of, "Okay, I've got to savor this." It's like that last bite of your dessert. You're like, "Okay, I forgot about the last seven bites because I was just not paying attention. This last bite, I really want to notice this bite." And that's how I feel that I want to really pay attention to these days in my life.
OLIVER: Absolutely. And I think one of the hazards there is that this kind of self-consciousness problem can kick in, where you don't pay attention to them precisely because you're so fixated on trying to pay attention to them (not you specifically). I think it's a risk. So there is a kind of self-forgetting that is needed at the same time. It's the same problem as trying to be present in the moment. People read spiritual books about the importance of being present in the moment and then spend the rest of the week constantly questioning themselves whether they're sufficiently present in the moment and that's the one condition in which they definitely aren't present at the moment.
SPENCER: I don't know if you've come across this but there's a Wait But Why article called the Tail End?
OLIVER: Yeah, I know it.
SPENCER: It has these really lovely little diagrams of like, "here's every month of your life" "here's every week of your life", "here's how many more presidents you're going to experience before you die", "here's how many more times you'll get to see your family before you die". It's sort of a shock to the system. They are like, "I may only make it to see my parents a certain number of more times,” Oh my gosh!
OLIVER: Yeah. And then you can compound that with the problem of time experientially and then reflection. There's a famous finding that I think everyone knows, who's older than about 25 or something, which is that the remembered experience of time seems to speed up as you age. So, the older you get, the shorter it seems like last year was. So there's this kind of double trap. You're running out of time and the rate at which you seem to be running out of time is accelerating. There were some research I came across years ago now which purported to show that by the time you're 40, if you're going to live till 80, something like 75% of your life is over, if it's understood as a matter of felt duration, which you can come back to, of course, by having lots of novel experiences, or becoming a super meditator and paying much closer attention to the experiences you're having. You can slow that down, but it's an additional aspect of the sort of ratchet, scary thing.
SPENCER: Yeah, I wonder how much of that is because we're doing routine things. And then, routine things don't really encode memory so much, right? If you do the same job every day, and you try to remember that week, you have very little to hang your memory on because it's all the same. And how much of it is more something fundamental about the brain and how the brain changes as you age?
OLIVER: I'm not a neuroscientist, but my understanding is that the first explanation is pretty widely accepted now. It is playing a big role that time is not something that—we have these incoming information as a proxy for remembering time. You don't remember duration in a direct way. This will help explain why childhood, summers famously, always seemed like they lasted forever, because everything you're doing is new. And I think that, in a very simple way, at this time in the history of the pandemic maybe lots of people listening haven't traveled anywhere for a long time. But if you think about a one-week trip that you took in the last couple of years, it always feels, in recollection, like a discernible chapter of your life in a way. But a week in your regular life just vanishes, just sort of constitutes to nothing. And I think lockdown probably exacerbated a lot of that because the routines that people were using to navigate and differentiate between different kinds of time all fell away. And we were just at home for long stretches.
SPENCER: Absolutely. After I finished my PhD, I went traveling with my girlfriend around Asia. We went to a bunch of different cities. We traveled for about three months and that just felt like such a vast period of time because we saw so many things in so many places. So yeah, I do wonder whether there's value in strategically trying to break up your time, if you can, to add more novel experiences and get this feeling of getting more out of each month of your life, although it's kind of hard logistically to do that.
OLIVER: I think it's a good idea. I think the problem is that there's this tension between the aspects of what most people count as a fulfilling life in terms of being in a long-term relationship, perhaps having and raising children, perhaps putting down roots in a community. There are aspects that require regionalization. So there's a tension between the two things. There's something most people would find pretty ruthless and depressing about a whole life spent just seeking novel experience. The meditation teacher Shinzonn Young — who you may know if you take a very scientific approach to questions of concentration and meditation — he's made this very persuasive — to me anyway — argument that the sort of flipside of filling your life with new experience would be to train your concentration faculties to be able to take in more of the information in a mundane experience. And he makes the claim that if you could concentrate twice as well in what was happening to you, your life would, from that point onwards, last twice as long based on the sort of logic that we're exploring here. So that's the alternative, right? To up the resolution of what you're taking in from your regular life, even if aspects of it are routinized.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's a really cool idea. It gets me thinking about meditations I've done on things like your hand or an apple, and you look at it so closely that it starts taking on this enormous complexity they're not used to and you're like, "Wow, this apple has so much texture to it." You can imagine a painter studying it for eight hours in order to paint it perfectly. And everything is like that. The more you pay attention, the more complexity and beauty you can find in anything. So I think that's a really, really cool experience to do that. I mean, obviously, it's incredibly hard to maintain as a regular behavior, but at least you can get a taste of it and some of these meditation practices.
OLIVER: No, it's not easy. And my meditation practice is a pretty shoddy thing. But when it works, it does work.
SPENCER: So what is the importance trap?
OLIVER: Well, this is a label that I gave to a specific expression of this problem with trying to feel unlimited, trying to get on top of everything in a world that offers infinite inputs and therefore, getting on top of it is not going to happen. I count myself as a recovering productivity geek. I spent many years while I was writing the column on this stuff for The Guardian, sort of experimenting with all these kinds of practices and systems under the guise of research for what I was writing about. But really to try to — I can go to the similar detail, we can do the whole therapy side of this — but really to try to achieve a kind of control over my life that I was never going to achieve. The importance trap was the label I give to this phenomenon that I began to notice in my own life, which was that the “better” I got at handling things efficiently — dealing with my email, keeping track of all the projects that I was involved in — the more it seemed to me that I would focus on the things I was really good at getting done with the unimportant things. And the things that I didn't get around to were the really important things. I wrote a little bit about this in an exploratory way and got deluged with people. I mean, it's not only an anecdote but deluged with other people saying "No, this is exactly how it is for me as well". I think this basic notion that we have, that the important stuff that we want to do in our lives requires time, and it requires attention, and it requires a sense of mental clarity. And so you naturally tend towards focusing on clearing the decks first, because you very rarely feel like you have the relevant time, energy, attention, and clarity of mind to do the really important things. So you process all your emails, you pay all the bills, you start doing all sorts of tasks around the house that probably don't really matter that much. And on some level, you're doing it in the service of the time when you will really turn to what matters. But it doesn't happen. Not least because there isn't a limit to the amount of stuff that can come across the transom in terms of the little and unimportant stuff. So if the inputs into your system are effectively infinite, and you decide to deal with the ball before you get around to the important stuff, then you'll never get around to the important stuff. So there's actually an inverse relationship between becoming efficient and making time for what you know helps you most.
SPENCER: Yeah, I can definitely relate to that this sense of, "Oh, I shouldn't work on this important stuff until I've cleaned out my inbox or cleaned out my to do list." And partly, it's this feeling, "I have so many things, I should just get a bunch out of the way." I think partly, it's just that the big important things can just be more stressful. They also can require high context, like you might feel, "Oh, I really need two hours or three hours to make progress on that. I can't just jump into it", whereas the little stuff you feel, "Oh, I could just get a few things off my to do list right now, I don't need that lockout time." Maybe also perfectionism can creep in there. It's "Well, I'm not in my right mental state to work on the big important thing.” I just think all these factors that can lead us to work on the little unimportant stuff. So what I've actually been doing, which I found really valuable, is I set up a once weekly meeting with my research assistant — shout out to Claire, if she's listening — and we work on the kind of stuff that you avoid, that stuff that's important but there's no deadline for it and so you just never want to do it because you never feel, "I have the right mental space to take on this important task.” It doesn't have a deadline, so I'm never going to be driven by an external deadline to do it. So I've got kind of once a week that I just do that kind of stuff.
OLIVER: It's a great idea, right? You have to do something to hack the problem, because the problem and the important stuff, obviously, is the very importance of the thing that is causing it not to get done. It's this kind of big irony. And so, you need to do something like that. And I think the flip side is ways of organizing your day that sort of pushed back against the desire to clear the decks — I made a whole case in the book for why you should try to stop clearing the decks and at the very least move the deck clearing activity to the end of the day — and ideally, cultivate a certain comfort with the fact that the decks are never going to be clear. I really like this idea that comes from Jessica Abel — I think she's a graphic novelist originally, but also a creativity coach who's written on some of this stuff, who borrows the idea of "paying yourself first" — that time, on a bit of personal finance advice that if you want to save money, you should take it out of your paycheck when you get it, and then spend the rest on whatever you're going to spend it on. Instead of spending on what you need one spend it on and hoping that there'll be some leftover to save at the end of the month (or to the two-week period, whatever) because there's not going to be any, because if you, first of all, remove the chunk of money into savings, in most cases, you're not going to miss that money and the rest of your expenditures will fit around. It obviously doesn't work if you're living on the poverty line. But in many circumstances, your expenditures will fit around the reduced amount of income, that disposable income that you have. But if you do it the other way around, you will find a way to justify every single purchase and expenditure until there's no money left. And she points out that the same thing applies to time. There will never be a time when you have all the time that you feel you need for the projects that you care about the most. And so the only reasonable response to that is to carve out a couple of hours first thing to work on that thing, and let the chips fall where they're going to fall with everything else. Because if you keep constantly chasing the expanse of empty time, then you're never going to get there.
SPENCER: Yeah, maybe one way to think about it is not everyone is overworked. Some people you know have a leisurely lifestyle and so on. But if you're the sort of person that always feels like you don't have enough time, you always feel like you have too many things in your to-do list (which I imagine quite a number of people listening to this feel that way) and you've been working on this for years, it may be time to figure to yourself, "Hey! You know what? I may never be the sort of person that doesn't have too many things on my to-do list. I may never be this sort of person that never feels like I have extra time. So okay, let's assume I don't solve this problem. What does that look like? How do I live with having too many things on my to-do list? How do I live with having not enough time?” And I think that's where some of that is that you're talking about fit in, right?
OLIVER: Yeah, exactly.
SPENCER: Yeah. But on a practical level, the idea of letting things drop may be upsetting. Or you might feel like the idea of not replying to an email may feel unappealing. So how does this actually work in practice? Or how do you feel like you use these ideas?
OLIVER: It is upsetting. And there's sort of two responses to that. I think one of them is just to say that we're talking here about the human condition, right? We're talking here about the fact that we are finite creatures, limited like any other animal, but that we have these brains that are capable of conceiving of goals and ambitions that reach beyond our capacities. So there is a kind of disappointment that's built into living a conscious, authentic life. There is just a sort of sadness involved, not the message people necessarily want to hear. But if you're the kind of person who can easily conceive of more ambitions for your life than you could ever possibly fit into your life, you’re going to have an element of wistfulness, at the very least, towards what you didn't get around to. I think the other thing we’re saying, though, is that — I can certainly imagine people hearing this and say, "Well, I don't have the choice to not reply to my emails. My work situation doesn't allow me that," or "I don't have the choice not to make your kids dinner." — there's all sorts of things where we don't have a choice. I think the point I'm trying to drive out here is that, if it is a fact that you face an impossible combination of demands, whether that's because you are living in poverty and economic insecurity, and it feels like you have to do the impossible just keep a roof over your head (or the other end of the scale, whether you feel like your life as a fully actualized and fulfilled human being can only be done if you spend the next 10 years of your life both being an incredibly dedicated parent and spending most of your time on solitary meditation retreats). In all these cases, the different levels of privilege, the demands in question are impossible. And if they are impossible, then they are impossible, right? You have to decide which problem you want to have if you are faced with demands or ambitions that can't be made to work on a mathematical basis. So there's a move. It's hard to explain, I guess, but there's a move where you can say, "Okay, I'm in an impossible situation. The world has put me into a hostile situation, or my family, whatever, but I'm not going to internally collaborate with the notion that with enough self-discipline and the right time management techniques, I might actually manage to do something impossible.” You can internally secede from that notion. And then you are in a better position to invest the time that you do have in the things that matter the most. And of course, mattering the most might be fulfilling all the petty demands of an annoying, tyrannical boss, if you've made the decision that fulfilling those needs of that boss for now is the thing that serves your interests maximally, not necessarily going to quit your job and go live on the top of a mountain. It was going to be conscious of the choices that you are making. And hopefully, why you're making it.
SPENCER: This will be one where it says, “You're not going to do the impossible, whether you believe you can do the impossible or not. But by accepting that you're in an impossible situation, you're trying to do more things than you can do.” Then you can actually reason around it and say, "Okay, I have to willingly and consciously cut some of these things out, rather than just continually try to do the impossible and fail”, right?
OLIVER: Right. And there's a problem with the messaging here, because obviously a lot of self-help and business advice take this rhetorical notion that you can do the impossible. And what they mean, of course, is that your true limits may allow for more impressive accomplishments than you realize, right? There is such a thing as a sort of falsely limiting belief that you can't do things or find time for things. I'm talking about the truly impossible. And I think when people get confused between those, that's a recipe for frustration when they find themselves on the track of trying to do something that is literally impossible.
SPENCER: So what would you say to someone that feels like they're letting people down by, let's say, not responding to emails or letting little things slip?
OLIVER: I struggle with this myself still to this day. But I think what you would hope to say, or what I would say to such a person is, "First of all, what if you allowed for that feeling?" So this is more of a therapeutic intervention, I suppose. But what if you allowed for the idea that was going to happen anyway, and that you had to tolerate some kind of feeling that somebody was being disappointed? Many people are in the situation that they are going to disappoint their parents, for example, if they pursue the career that they are very passionate about. And they're going to obviously just disappoint themselves if they spend their lives chasing their parents' ambitions. That's just one example. But I think there's an awful lot of negative emotions in life (like anxiety, letting people down, and anxiety at not getting around to everything) that become very much more tolerable when you understand that they come with the territory of being human. There's a lovely quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, the late American Zen Buddhist teacher who said — she talked about life in general — I think she said, “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured." I really love this as a motto because suffering, in some sense of the word, comes with the territory, but the suffering that comes from trying to eliminate all suffering is optional. And settling into the situation that you're going to fail at some things and seeing that, actually, not only are you going to, but it's the price of living an accomplished and exciting and extraordinary life. To decide to fail at some things is just given in the situation. I think it is incredibly empowering. Talking about some other things in the past about stoicism and stuff, there's also some benefit in going through that process of asking what the actual worst case scenario is if you failed completely in some particular domain. That often cuts it down to size, because you realize that when you articulate it yourself, you can't actually convince yourself that the world would explode if you dropped a given ball. So there's something to be said for understanding that there's a kind of self centeredness. And the idea (I'm still in this position), I can worry for days on end about some little task I’ve promised someone I’d do and haven't done yet. And you don't get the impression that they were actually spending their life pacing around their living room, wondering what the heck I was doing, because they were wrapped up in their own concerns.
SPENCER: We've actually done some research on this issue that’s concerning the worst that could happen. And we found that thought experiment helps some people, and it actually really stresses some people out.
OLIVER: Oh, interesting.
SPENCER: I suspect what's going there depends a lot on the kind of thing you're on about. Let's say your child is sick, we don't know what they're sick with. They just feel sick right now. What's the worst thing that could happen? So you think your child is dying and all that horrible stuff. That's probably not helpful. That thought experiment is like, "Well, could you survive when your child dies?" That's not the right way to deal with that. Whereas, a lot of things we worry about, we can actually deal with them if they turn out badly. So I think it's the dichotomy of, "Is this really a serious thing or not?" If it's not a serious thing then I think the experiment is, "What's the worst could happen?" "Could I get through if it happened?" Are these useful?
OLIVER: That's really interesting. I'm sure you're right that it depends on the subject matter. I suspect it also depends on personality. I'm not saying that there's anybody for whom it will be useful to consider the worst case scenario when it comes to things as unbelievably awful as the child, but it puts me in mind. Just a personal experience, but I think I'm probably a defensive pessimist in the sense that I think I probably, on some level, go through life expecting the worst so as not to be unpleasantly surprised. And I found I had a very strange experience at the beginning of the pandemic, when everything shut down for a couple of weeks, I was incredibly anxious about what was happening, in a sort of bodily way. I was very worried about (as many people were thinking about) this sudden change in our lives. But then what started happening in it, I risk sounding callous here, of course, especially to anyone who lost close relatives to COVID, or anything like that. So I don't mean it that way. But every terrible news headline that came in every death that came in, I found myself having a sort of strange reaction of anti-climax to it. I found myself realizing that, on some subconscious level, I had sort of braced for the end of the world, a sort of total catastrophe that any finite events that happened, even if it was really bad, didn't measure up to those kinds of infinite fantasies of horror. It reminded me of the work of Albert Ellis, the old therapist who died a bunch of years ago now, but who always used to harp on about how nothing could happen that could be 100% bad, because you could always imagine something worse than what had happened. And it struck me a little bit. Not a terribly useful thing to say, but there was something really interesting about learning that what was actually happening had edges to it, that it was finite, that it wasn't a complete catastrophe. And that sort of made me realize what an apocalyptic sense of the world I must have been going through life with. And I don't think I was alone in that. Actually, I've spoken to a few people who seem to have a similar reaction.
SPENCER: It's fascinating how sometimes we can be worried about a thing and really stressed out about it. And then, the bad thing we're worried about happens and we actually feel some relief in some weird way.
SPENCER: That state of not knowing when bad will happen is worse than when bad things have happened. Now I can deal with it, I can act. Obviously, this tends to be more for minor things.
OLIVER: Of course. And in the background of this, no one ever wants to speak glib about absolutely awful tragedies befalling people. But yeah, I think the transition there from infinite fantasies to finite facts. Anything that actually happens is finite. So it's less the world of your worst imaginings by definition.
SPENCER: You mentioned Albert Ellis. So there's this place, the Albert Ellis Center in New York City. And he famously would do live therapy sessions where you could come watch, obviously, with permission of the patient and video. These are more like simulations of therapy, because you can't really do therapy with a crowded audience walking by. I've gone to them a few times. They're fascinating.
OLIVER: I saw one once a long time ago.
SPENCER: Great. And obviously, Albert Ellis has passed away, so these days it is his people who are following in his tradition. It's super interesting to see that thought process and he apparently would do very jarring things to the patients, like basically tell them that they were being irrational and very directly challenged them in a way that I think a lot of therapists would not do today, but he thought it was very effective.
OLIVER: I suppose my feeling about that and even the more mainstream cognitive behavioral therapy approaches there is they can be great in jolting you out of deluded thinking, I do think that they probably, in the end, over invest in cognition as the key to emotional. That's my ultimate descent from stoicism as well. I don't think you can ultimately reason your way entirely out of one emotional state into another. But yeah, it was fun stuff to watch or to read.
SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like one of the biggest challenges in therapy and mental health is when we have an emotion that is out of alignment with our thinking. So you know bridges are safe and yet, you freak out whenever you're on a bridge, or you know that you want to have a relationship and yet, you find that you have an emotional reaction every time you get into a relationship that causes you to distance that person away from you. And these disconnects — cognitive therapy has a set of tools and I think they are really useful for some people for bridging this. And then other people have other preferred approaches — but I think this sort of giving the disconnect between emotions and thinking just seems like one of these incredibly high leverage activities. And the more we can develop effective techniques first, the more people can be helped.
OLIVER: Yes, absolutely. I think the main difference between the CBT approaches, the so called evidence-based therapies, is they rather snootily refer to themselves as against them to depth psychology, long-term talk therapy and stuff. The latter is obviously focusing on the idea of the unconscious much more. The idea that actually when this disconnect arises between your understanding and your emotions, there's some other layer of level on which you actually don't want to do the thing or to risk that being in a relationship or crossing the bridge. It is sort of bringing you into contact with things that you have reasons to want to avoid feeling, but they are reasons that are submerged beneath consciousness. And obviously, it's controversial, but I always feel like it's actually a very useful frame, whether or not it's got a huge weight of evidence.
SPENCER: Tell me about patience and why you think patience is important in the world today?
OLIVER: Well, it's a somewhat changing topic, because I think it all ultimately comes back down to limitation and finitude, but I think it's a different kind. This is heavily influenced by the ideas of an art historian at Harvard called Jennifer Roberts, who makes this really interesting observation that historically, patience has been a virtue that you urge on people who lack power as a way to reconcile themselves to their lack of power. So it's the kind of thing you tell people who we're not in a position to live an exciting life. It was the kind of thing that young women were supposed to learn, while their husbands lead much more exciting lives in the public sphere outside. So it's got this kind of awkward, passive, somewhat almost oppressive feel. And she points out that in an accelerating world, patience is transformed. It becomes a form of power, because when everything in our environment and our technological culture is happening in the service of rush, the ability to let things take the time they take, and to not give in to the discomfort of letting them take the time it takes is actually a way to gain purchase on the things that you're doing, to actually gain an edge over other people, to be able to read long books without feeling so uncomfortable that you distract yourself after the first couple of pages, to be able to stick with projects that might take longer than the culture feels that things ought to take to come to fruition. So that actually becomes a kind of virtue of — sort of a superpower in a way — the more that the conditions around it become geared for rush and for hurry.
SPENCER: It does seem that patience is reducing now. And maybe one of the things that everyone always feels is true are things like Twitter, things like TikTok where you get these incredibly short videos turn out one after another. I remember hearing you give an interesting example of thinking about how frustrating it is to wait 15 seconds for your computer to do something, whereas we used to have to wait constantly for things to happen. You would have to go to the library to get information. And now you're annoyed to wait 15 seconds because your computer is being slow or something.
OLIVER: Yeah. Now, of course, my argument for that is that it is all to do with this rejection of limitation. Because I think what's going on there is technology brings us closer and closer to the feeling that we might be able to be Gods with respect to our time. We might be able to heat food instantly because the microwave lets us do it in a minute. We might be able to access information on the internet literally instantly, instead of having to wait four seconds for slow loading webpage. And so the closer you feel that you're getting to that position of omnipotence over reality, the more frustrating it is to be reminded of the ways in which reality remains stubborn and takes the time that it takes. Now, I don't know of any research that has shown what I believe, for example, that people honking their horns out of impatience in New York City has become worse in the era of mobile broadband. But you've got to believe that when you have a phone on the car seat beside you, that lets you find out everything you need instantly and contact anywhere in the world instantly. The bits of reality that remain in transition to your desire to make everything go at the speed you choose must become, I think, more and more frustrating. It seems more and more outrageous that we are the material objects in the world and run up against other material objects and have to wait for them.
SPENCER: You can find articles online that say that Amazon found that they lost 1% sales for every 100 milliseconds of extra latency and the loading, or that Google found an extra 25 seconds to generate the search page drop traffic by 20%. These are mind-blowing. Those are really true. It is just this tiny delay that caused people to shift their behavior significantly.
OLIVER: Right. But I think that goes through an awful lot of this stuff on self-improvement and all the rest of it. The amount of discomfort that is required to completely subvert our intentions is just astonishingly tiny. It's not that anything needs to be actively painful. It's just that any roadblock of any sort gets put in our way, we'll go do something else immediately.
SPENCER: You mentioned the phone sitting next to us in the car. I mean, it's just wild. You have almost infinite entertainment with you at all times, which you're thinking about in terms of opportunity costs. That's a bizarre opportunity cost to just have carried around with you all the time, like "Oh, I can have infinite entertainment anytime I want. And now, anytime I'm in the physical world, my alternative is my phone with the entire internet on it."
OLIVER: Right. And I think, not to harp on this, but there is some kind of experience that is a kind of omnipotence and omniscience, that is a feeling that is encouraged. The phenomenology of being online is of being unconstrained by materiality, right? It is some sense of being in a different dimension than the material world and where the rules don't apply, and I think you see that in everything. I think it also includes the disinhibition effects of the internet, the feeling that people have that the libel laws don't apply to them, or that they're not committing harassment, or terrorism or something, as long as they're doing it in that headspac. And so, it's an extremely strange situation to be in a world of, especially in an urban setting, completely limited by the material world wherever you turn. And then, there's this little portal into some simulated godmode just sitting in your pocket.
SPENCER: That’s a way of putting it. Just wait until we have something like Google Glass where we're wearing it on our face at all times. And then the god mode just follows you around.
OLIVER: Well, I read all this stuff about the metaverse, and I keep wondering when is this actually going to happen that these two things merge? And what the hell is gonna happen then? Because how do we understand material limits? When we're looking through something like Google Glass and physical reality?
SPENCER: Some people say, "Oh, it's not gonna matter. What's the difference, you've got something in your pocket, you can take out and four seconds versus having an interface." I actually see a really big difference, though. Because if something's on your face, if you never take it off, then suddenly, you're just in it all the time. Right? You can just always be having a conversation with a friend, and they think you're paying attention. And really you've just gamified the experience, or you're getting information or whatever. Whereas, at least with the phone in your pocket, people see if you have it out. There is a default mode, which is not looking at it, right?
OLIVER: Right, exactly. And I think people undergo personality changes when they go in a mild way, when they check out of their physical surroundings on to social media. And then, I think people are probably quite capable of being pretty rude or unrestrained in other ways online, and then resuming their regular selves. I don't understand what happens when those personalities are simultaneous down to the very moment. It seems like something strange and presumably bad is going to happen.
SPENCER: And it's kind of amazing that people will say and do things online that they would just never do in real life. And part of that might be the anonymity, but even when it's not anonymous, there's just this detachment, this layer of separation. You don't have to see the facial reaction and the moment you insult someone, right? You can treat them as a distant entity or a detached entity, that's pure bad or something like this.
OLIVER: Absolutely. And I think it's the same thing, right? How could there be consequences in this kind of disembodied world? How could it matter? I think it's very strange phenomenologically. It's really strange. I know there's a whole pushback from a bunch of younger philosophers and writers on this stuff. The whole sort of in real life versus virtual dichotomy is a false one. And we should stop talking as if this is another world with all these terrible dangers inherent in it. But I just think that phenomenologically it's true. I mean, experientially, it's true that you feel like you are in a somehow different place when you're deeply enmeshed in that. Although, maybe it's generational. Maybe 12 year-olds today don't feel that way. They have a better way of blending the two.
SPENCER: Well, one way to think about different modes of communication is that they cause you to focus on different information. If you're sitting with someone face-to-face, no phones out, you're paying attention to their full body language. You're not distracted by other things. So, there's a different information set, then, if you're text messaging with someone, which is also different than if you're in a zoom call with someone. And so, I don't know if online versus offline is the main distinction. I think the main distinction is, what does each mode of communication cause you to focus on? What information is not there? And what information tends to be salient at that moment during the communication?
OLIVER: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense as well. These different forms, shapes, what we see. And even just things being able to curate your social circle on Twitter, so that you never need to run into a challenge. If that's your preferred way of being, you can see all sorts of personality traits being rapidly amplified all the time that way, because you're creating your reference peer group, as you wish, instead of running up against people telling you to get a hold of yourself or something.
SPENCER: I've seen this used in really bizarre ways where people will, for example, run a poll for their Twitter followers and word it in such a way that they know their Twitter followers are gonna vote a certain way. And then they can go and say, "Ah, I'm objectively right, because you see, everyone agrees with me on this topic." It's an interesting kind of ultimate self-selection bias that's to prove your own point of view.
SPENCER: Are you a Twitter user?
OLIVER: Yes. I mean, not particularly proudly, but yes. I go back and forth. It definitely does harm to me in some way, in the sense that I definitely fall prey to compulsion to be on there, when I'm actually conscious in that moment of a higher part of my motivation that doesn't want to be on there. So there's certainly an addictive quality to it. But I think it's often harder to see the positive effects of these things that we're actually taking from them. I mean, if I waste an hour of my day and end up feeling fatigued and annoyed and angry with strangers, it's very easy to see that Twitter has that negative effect. For some reason, if I get an interesting idea for something to write from the way several people are discussing an issue, it'll somehow be less clear to me that that came from my engagement with social media. And even just the background idea, when you're a relatively solitary writer, there's a kind of genuine layer of camaraderie that exists there. And I don't want to dismiss that as fake again. It's hard to see until you don't have it. I think the big tell here is that when I do manage in various fits of renunciation to go for a few weeks without going on to Twitter, I do not miss it. I can't pretend that I miss it. I'm fine with that after a few days.
SPENCER: So is it just business at the end of the day? Or does that serve a useful purpose?
OLIVER: No, like I said, I think it's providing me with part of my social life, especially in a lockdown context, right? When my work is fundamentally sitting at a desk on my own and there's something really pleasurable about having this cocktail party accessible at the click of a button, unfortunately, there's all sorts of bad. It's very bad as well that it makes it very difficult for me to turn away even when I know consciously, in that moment, that I would like to turn away. And you get into this thing where you're sort of — I wrote about this in the book — it's not just that you use up an hour, or you have half an hour, it sort of distorts the way you think about everything. And I don't know you've ever had this experience, but like, if I see someone just making some really annoyingly wrong argument, and I feel like I'm probably not going to get into a fight by picking a feud with them or anything, but it's so wrong. I'll just be prosecuting that argument in my head later on when I'm making dinner or at the gym or something, and it colonizes parts of your attention far beyond the moments of actually being on the network.
SPENCER: Oh, yeah. I find one of the most annoying things about it is that I think about checking it, and that I don't like. I mean, if I just checked it six times a day but never thought about it any other time, that would actually be more pleasant than thinking about checking it, but thinking “No I should not check it now.”
OLIVER: Right. And it's just a variable reward mechanism, as well. There was a conversation where somebody — I think it was Sam Harris, somebody very sort of with a huge following and a very big audience — talking about how the notifications tab just always said "99". And so it was having explained to him how the Notifications tab is used to lure people. And little pauses left once you click onto Twitter before you see your number of notifications, because it's exciting. And that keeps you gripped. And I think I wonder if there's a level of audience and fame, where because you're always receiving 1000s of notifications every minute, that whole variable reward thing breaks down. And it's less addictive, because you know that you're going to have 1000s of people screaming at you and 1000s of people saying you're great.
SPENCER: I used to use a plugin for Facebook that literally would break the site. It would make it load really slowly, the notifications would show up in gray instead of red, and it just would be really janky like a crappy piece of software. And the idea is to undo all the work that engineers put into making it addictive. It still lets you use the site, but just makes it crappy.
OLIVER: Right? That won’t work for Twitter.
SPENCER: Yeah. So before we finish up, I want to go meta a little bit, because I feel like you have an unusual way of thinking about these topics, like there's something that ties together the different work that you do and it's not the typical perspective. So, do you have comments on what is the difference between the way you're thinking about this and the way others are thinking about the same topics?
OLIVER: For some reason, that strikes me as a really hard question to think about myself. Do you have a hint of what you're talking about in terms of the substance of that? I mean, I might well be able to run with some pointers. But yeah, what do you mean?
Well, you read about self-help. In some ways, you're a self-help author, right? You write self-help books. But the vibe of your self-help books is like, set low expectations. The typical self-help book is like, "You can radically improve your life in five minutes a day." And your self-help books are, “You can be slightly happier." But it's not just that low expedition. The typical self help book is "You can do everything" You’re, "No, no, you can't. Just pick the things that are important, and then realize, you're not going to get to the other things, and then figure out a way to just not be 100% accountable to do everything. Just let some people down.”
OLIVER: Yeah, Thank you, it's very helpful to have this reflected back to me, because obviously, I'm a little bit too inside my own head. I think there's two things that come out of that, two things that I do think are definitely principles that are often expressed in the stuff I'm writing and working on. Number one is this idea of how empowering it is to knowledge, reality, wants and all. And this is what I mean by the word acceptance. I think it gets a lot of people's hackles to rise at that word, because people think that you're sort of talking about passively agreeing with the situation that you're in or that society is in or something like that. But I just mean, acceptance that things currently are the way they are, instead of trying to lever your way out of them by starting off by pretending that they are not the way they are. And then, as is indicated in those subtitles, how to become slightly happier and get a bit more done, that any improvement or progress that is concrete and real and actually happens is worth an infinite amount more than any amount of progress that is fantasize about and that you're just on the verge of getting to and that soon, you'll have the systems in place to implement, but not quite yet. And for now, it hasn't quite happened, and you haven't quite got there. And so yeah, I'm just in both these ways. I think I'm just a recovering perfectionist. I think I’ve seen how having these grandiose perspectives on how much one can do and how much one is going to do at some point in the future are not just unrealistic, but they actively serve as obstacles to doing real, meaningful, possible, concrete things.
SPENCER: To riff on that, it seems like an element of your writing is about while a bunch of ideas and classic self-help can be useful to some people, they can also be actively self-defeating.
OLIVER: Right. The question is always, “Am I using this idea to get something done that is important to me or make a change that is important to me? Or am I actually using it to fuel some comforting fantasy to help me carry on not feeling some kind of feeling that my upbringing or something else has caused me to think it would be terrible to have to feel? And how empowering could it be if I was actually capable of feeling that feeling and then doing the thing I wanted to do?” It's not necessarily always the fault of the guru or the fault of the system, but I think huge numbers of these kinds of systems and approaches can be co-opted and are sort of most naturally co-opted by us to help us avoid facing things. And the biggest thing that we're trying to avoid facing is just this fundamental situation that we're in of not having much time, and it’s all running out, and not being able to control how events are going to unfold, and being vulnerable to things that might happen tomorrow that we have no way of being sure about now.
SPENCER: Oliver, this is great. Thank you so much for coming on.
OLIVER: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
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