Despite the impression the 24-hour news cycle has given off, the world has unquestionably gotten a lot better. People live longer, are wealthier, more secure and eat more than ever. Never before in human history could anyone imagine that obesity would be a problem. While undeniably positive overall, such a dynamic has a downside; namely that an abundance of choice and opportunity can become paralyzing.
Back in the proverbial good ole days, people had few choices and that at least made it relatively simple to plot one’s path in life. If you were born on a farm, in all likelihood you would work on said farm. Not that that was necessary good, but it was easy.
People in a small town basically lived a simple life; family, community, vocation, maybe some religion and if they were lucky, a little down time. Certainly there were a myriad of problems I would not want to return to; medieval peasants constantly faced starvation and 19thcentury factory workers would put in 60-80 hours a week in grueling conditions. But despite such unenviable challenges, life was much more simple back then.
Today, say if one sets off on the course of becoming an engineer, switching to another profession is extraordinarily difficult. If you graduate college and become an engineer, then decide you would like to become a doctor, it’s is all but impossible. It would require going back to college, three years of medical school and then several more years of residency. Indeed, such waffling would require a lifespan significantly longer than the human body can provide. Most artisan trades from the old days required a fair amount of practice, but switching to another was unlikely to require untold years of training.
The Internet has further compounded this with an array of possibilities to gain knowledge or start on a new career or social hobby. And this is further compounded by the ability to compare said career and hobbies to everyone else’s. The modern FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) anxiety comes to a head scrolling through one’s Facebook feed to see what everyone else is doing and you aren’t.
So what do you want to do? Do you want to travel the world? Do you want to learn to play a musical instrument? Do you want to learn a second language? Do you want to become an expert in 13 different subjects? Do you want to find a soul mate (or a bunch of short term soul mates)? Do you want to become an Internet entrepreneur and make sizeable residual income? Or how about learning to ski, mountain climb or run marathons? P90X or Insanity? Vegan or Paleo? There’s so many choices, so many paths and yet only a limited amount of time to achieve whatever your goal is.
In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated, he discusses how Mozart and Jerry Rice, among many others, got so good at what they did. It boiled down to little more than a ton of hard work. Mozart started at an ungodly young age and dedicated his life to music (his first symphonies were not particularly good). Jerry Rice was legendary for showing up long before anyone else to practice and leaving long after everyone had already gone home. They became great through monomaniacal focus on their craft.
Such monomaniacal focus on a given craft was surely all but impossible back in the day when starvation was a real concern (other than the craft of avoiding starvation, of course). This is key reason why economic growth started increasing exponentially in the late 18th century. Once people had enough to eat they could focus on building businesses, creating new inventions and coming up with a vast number of scientific and medical breakthroughs. Enough people dedicated themselves so thoroughly to such pursuits that the capital and technology simply built upon itself.
As we move from the industrial age into the information age, careers require significantly more education to master. Simple tasks can be automated and trades such as electricians have an awful lot more to learn than many of the artisans of old. We’ve simultaneously moved from a society with limited options that were relatively easy to master to a society with many options but difficult that in many cases, are much more challenging to master.
Ironically, as the amount of time and energy required to master something has increased, the mass of information and opportunities available have almost certainly diluted the monomaniacal focus of high achievers. I can’t say how many hobbies, diets or plans I’ve seen people (myself included) pick up and then subsequently drop. It’s as if the Shiny Object Syndrome has infected the first world in mass.
Perhaps even the totalitarian impulse comes from this (or a sort Nietzschean slave morality). Many people simply don’t want to make up their minds or bear the consequences of their decisions. Being told what to do may not always be pleasant, but it is much easier. While authoritarian systems lead to less growth and science as well as more oppression and war, the impulse to have one’s life directed is certainly the path of least resistance and is probably what many wannabe dictators take advantage of.
Indeed, rates of depression and mental illness are rising and a full 20 percent of Americans take either anti-depressants, anti-psychotics or anti-anxiety medication. This of course could mean we’re just recognizing or perhaps counting more conditions as such. It may also have something to do with people being paralyzed by the mass of available choices and subsequent dedication required to actually achieve something after a choice is taken. People then compare themselves to others who have succeeded in those areas and are so prominently displayed. Is it any wonder that people go figuratively or literally crazy? Back when starvation was the issue, who would care if their neighbor had six pack abs?
Of course, this isn’t to say that a world of choices and opportunities is a bad thing. It’s simply the side effect of a great thing; the ultimate First World problem. What it does elucidate, to me at least, is the importance of a minimalistic approach. There is so much information, media, opportunities and choices out there that it needs to be properly filtered or otherwise it will become overwhelming. Media should be seen like food and consumed with moderation. Mindless consumption should be avoided. Decisions should be made with care instead of in a haphazard, impulsive way. And only one decision should be made at a time instead of trying to start multiple new things all at once. If you find such choices to be unfulfilling, drop them quickly. If they are fulfilling, dedicate yourself to them fully and be diligent to avoid the dreaded Shiny Object Syndrome.
The big thing is recognizing that more is not necessarily better. It’s just more. And these days, I’m not so sure more is what we need.