Monday, January 26, 2015

The suck-at list

My first childhood memory is that of an epiphany. I was four, or maybe five, and I was being punished at school. The punishment was that I had to go sit in the other classroom with the younger kids, and stay there until the teacher would come and get me. I don't remember what I had done. What I do remember is the sudden realization that since this was such a laughable ordeal, not only was whatever I had done totally worth it, but as long as I accepted the resulting punishment, I could do absolutely anything I wanted.

I know this sounds like a dumb sort of epiphany, but when I was four, this completely blew my little mind. So much so, in fact, that I took it upon myself to try and educate my peers on this newfound philosophical insight, as it baffled me how they all seemed to think that when something wasn't allowed, that meant that it was somehow impossible. You can imagine most adults didn't like this, but for the most part, I really wasn't trying to start any trouble. I just carried the tremendous power of this knowledge around with me like a concealed weapon, trembling with excitement and awe.

The most important concept in existential philosophy is that of radical freedom (← click this, it's a comic that explains it much better than I can). It means you always have a choice, even if none of these choices sound tempting. It's true that the amount of options we have isn't distributed fairly, but we've also been conditioned to only see a very narrow range of them. We don't even consider that drunk miniature golf is always an option. Or that we can moonwalk out of any meeting the moment we get bored. We probably wouldn't like the consequences of some of these choices, but they're there.

It's a rare thing to sit down and really think about everything that's possible, especially as adults. It's mind boggling and also a little scary. Radical freedom comes with radical responsibility (You knew there was going to be a catch, right?). Only we can decide what to do with the time we are given, and it's short. On a planetary scale, we are here for only the blink of an eye. You don't have to pull the camera back very far to realize that none of us are really all that important. But to us, this brief life is the most important thing there is. What if we choose wrong?

This is why there is only one question in all of philosophy and religion that really matters, and that question is this: Now what?

What should we do? Where should we go? Who should we be?

As rational individuals in an absurd world with our mortality as the proverbial cherry on top, trying to answer this question presents us with the ultimate paradox: a) It doesn't really matter what we choose, since we're all going to die anyway and b) Nothing matters as much as what we choose, because we're all going to die.1

Thus, the existential crisis is born. I'm exceptionally good at succumbing to those. In fact, it continually amazes me how other people seem to be able to go through life without being crushed beneath the weight of this question as they are buying bus passes or waiting in line at grocery stores or brushing their teeth.
Now what?
It feels like they all figured out this grand answer years ago and conspired to keep it a secret, but the truth of it is that it's extremely rare to ever really consider this question in all its immensity. If it wasn't, you'd see a lot more people randomly collapse in the street, or decide to live in a jar.

There is the school of thought that urges us to live every day as if it's our last. It's funny how the people who spout this are usually the same ones whose bucket lists contain such generic must-haves like 'see the northern lights', 'go skydiving' and 'ride elephants in India'. Seldom featured are genuinely life changing but somewhat less marketable experiences like getting out of a bad marriage or realizing there is someone who knows every dark corner of your soul and still thinks you are ok. And a bunch of these things seem to mostly amount to getting photographed in front of stuff, or finding new ways to be insufferable on Facebook.

Then there is the school of thought that uses bucket lists for goal setting. This would be wonderful if it didn't require you to know exactly where you wanted to go and which way points to pass while getting there. In case you hadn't caught on by now: I don't know either.

I have come up with a kind of list of my own though. It's a suck-at list.

The idea was heavily inspired by the absolutely brilliant concept of the Favorite Shit Sandwich, coined by Mark Manson in an article that's an excellent read, even if the title sounds like BuzzFeed clickbait.

If life were about to serve me a shit sandwich, as it is wont to do, which kind of shit sandwich would I prefer? I don't know why it's so much easier for me to rate stuff I hate than it is to rate stuff I love (we may get into that at a later time), but it is.
I hate feeling like a perpetual teenager around people who wear business suits, but I don't hate it as much as having to pretend to be somebody else. I kind of hate not being able to buy stuff, but not half as much as I hate spending all my time at a pointless McJob. I passionately hate the constant second guessing and crippling self doubt that greets me every morning and keeps me up at night, but I'd never trade it for a life where everything was decided for me in advance. And I hate not liking where I'm going more than I would hate not getting there, which brings me to my second point.

Let's assume for a minute that it really does take 10,000 hours to get good at something. Let's say playing the violin. Let's also assume I were to practice for an hour every day. At that rate, it would still take me over 27 years to become a great violinist. That's a hell of a long time to suck at something, so I best pick something that I really love sucking at. The trouble is that there are only so many things you can do for an hour each day. If you really want to get good at something, there are a lot of other things you won't have time for. You don't get to be both a rock star and a neuroscientist unless you're Buckaroo Banzai.

So what if we take away the carrot at the end of the stick? What if someone were to visit us from the future to tell us that, yeah, spoiler alert, just as we were about to reach our life long goals, we'd be hit by a buss? Would we still try to achieve them? We might, but only if it was something that we loved to suck at anyway. And if you don't mind sucking, there suddenly is so much more that you could fit into your life. You could butcher a language one week, and build a crappy treehouse the next. You could have a year where you're really into fly fishing. You could learn every programming language just enough to say "hello world" in pink flashy letters. You could write a song, or make a sweater out of plastic bags. This isn't the kind of stuff that goes onto Facebook timelines though. It's the stuff that used to go on Regretsy.

We aren't raised to celebrate this kind of haphazardness. We're told to pick something and stick with it, even if it bores the crap out of us and keeps us from exploring other things. The ideal has become to know as much as possible about a very narrow topic. We respect experts and not dilettantes, no matter which one is more fun to be around. We think we are too old to play around and suck at stuff, but we're not.

The reason I go on about this is that I've realized that picking just one thing (or a handful of things) to make my life about would be just about the worst shit sandwich I could ever eat. This doesn't have to be like that for everybody, of course, but I'd rather eat the shit sandwich of never being particularly good at stuff, if it means I get to dabble a bit at everything. If there's one thing I've truly hated most throughout my life, it's boredom.

This means that for every possibility, there are only two important questions I need to ask myself:

1) Am I willing to eat the shit sandwich it comes with?

... and...

2) Is this something I am going to enjoy sucking at?

Combining these two points makes for a very different kind of bucket list. In fact it doesn't make for any kind of list at all. It's better. It's a heuristic for making life choices, which is awesome, because those are the things I suck at most of all. But at least I get to be the one who makes them. And the possibilities are limitless.

1 "If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do." Did I just quote 'Angel' at you? Hell yeah.