In a debate, constructing a straw man argument provides a neat way of constructing a foe from your own imagination who is easily and conveniently destroyed. For better or worse technology has allowed us a neat way of avoiding the trouble of gathering the straw and propping up a straw man ourselves. Instead of carefully creating the shape and character of the hapless scarecrow that we will later destroy, we decided that even this task was too great an effort. Now lounging in bed or draped across a sofa we can, by activating only one thumb, scroll through our feed of news and friends and interests until we find something ridiculous to which we can respond. ‘How dare they’ we cry, forgetting the thousands of reasonable thoughts and suggestions we passed by to get to this atrocious viewpoint. We mutter under our breath and type furiously our response. As we hit “post” we sigh contentedly knowing that we have made the world a safer place, a better place, a smarter place. That was one small post for man, one giant comment for mankind. Settling back into the cushions we begin to scroll, but what is this? Our foe has replied? Surely our wise insight must have brought them to their senses, and they have merely returned to thank us for bearing the lone light of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. But wait, they are doubling down? How could this be? And the ridiculousness has spread to multiple points each of which we must address. Settling in to begin to type, we realize that what began as a quick strike has now become a war of attrition. And thus passes a perfectly serviceable afternoon. But at least we were fighting the good fight against… who again?
Intentionally or unintentionally we, as a society, have begun to equate the importance of someone with how busy they appear to be. What this has inadvertently led to is an atmosphere where people feel that they must constantly appear to be busy even when they are not doing something necessary, enjoyable, or productive. How many of us actually have to be reachable at any time of the day for any reason? Very few. In one interview Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, comments on the fact that he tries to focus on one thing at a time and is intentional about avoiding a constant stream of emails and calls. And yet there are many people who’s decisions matter significantly less who are glued to their phones and are willing to interrupt anything they are doing if they hear any email or come in. The problem with multitasking and believing that our importance goes up if we have many different things going on at once is that multitasking actually makes us less productive in the tasks that matter and decreases our happiness and satisfaction while performing a given task.
Whenever we get sick this seems to reveal itself the best. Something about feeling ill and uncomfortable motivates us to cut out the chaff from our schedules and focus on what actually matters. Most of our emails do not need a reply. We realize that many of the tasks we think keep the world going are actually just fillers. We realize that we actually have time to get 8 hours of sleep per night and that many of the tasks that we thought that we were absolutely essential for actually do not require us to the degree that we once thought. We realize that many other people are willing and more than able carry on without our attention.
There are very few things as valuable as your attention. Consider how much advertisers are willing to pay for your attention. In the United States in 2016 just short of 200 billion dollars was spent specifically on advertising. That amounts to hundreds of dollars per person each year. We should begin to value our attention and focus as much as advertisers value it. For definite increments of time make yourself unavailable to interruption. Focus on one and only one task. Realize that the more valuable your time is, the fewer interruptions you should have. Be productive not simply busy. Productivity is the end goal, not busyness.
Fast forward 20 years into the future and we will be able to answer research questions that it took me 4 years of work to figure out in a matter of days or even hours. In 20 years many of the treatments and principles that we use in the clinic today will be replaced by better techniques and interventions. In 20 years the devices that we use to communicate and conduct business and pleasure will be radically different.
To an already existing example of this rewind 20 years. Molecular cloning and cell based assays for biological research were long and arduous with ambiguous readouts. Cancer treatments were far from targeted, contained a wide array of severe side effects, and we had a poor understanding of what actually contributed to the genesis and spread of the disease. And it would still be another 9 years until the first iphone was introduced.
However, as J.R.R. Tolkein writes through the words of Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”. We can look back at times in the past or dream of the days to come, but what our main concern must be is to decide how we can best use the time that has been given to us now. Likewise we can wish that our talents and gifts were different. Perhaps we think about how much greater of a difference we could make if only we were naturally a better athlete or naturally more intelligent.
The goal then is to be productive and efficient with what we have been given without pressure to perform outside of those constraints. Future advances and the achievements of others do not diminish what we do today. And at the end of the day, we are the ones who know if we did our best; our best after all is the most stringent and valuable metric of all.
Hindsight is 20/20. One of my memories of first grade was on the playground in the line for tetherball. A disagreement arose centered around the ambiguous guidelines we were calling the “rules” for playground tetherball. With tears welling up in his eyes at the perceived unfairness of the situation, one of the popular kids disinvited another one of the popular kids from his birthday party. A hush fell over the playground. Disinvitation from a birthday party was the pinnacle of first grade anger and hatred.
Looking at people who are in a stage of life through which we have already passed through, such as elementary school, high school, the first job, or any number of other stages, it is easy to maintain a context and objectivity. However when actually living through those stages, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to maintain context and objectivity. As stupid as a birthday party sounds now, when you are 6 years old and can only remember 1 or 2 of your own birthdays, these trivial cultural celebrations become of ultimate importance. Relationships, awards, publications, jobs, and tests that felt like they had the weight of the world resting on them can be looked back upon with barely an afterthought. Peter Thiel, co-founder of paypal and venture capitalist, writes about how difficult it was to quit at his law firm. From the outside it looked easy to quit, simply walk out the door. But from the inside the difficulty in leaving was more akin to an escape from prison.
Often the opinions of our current peers and supervisors feel like they mean the world to us. It is often helpful to imagine what leaving your current job, social circle, or school will feel like. That supervisor who you were always trying to please, well their opinion no longer has any bearing. Your arch enemy in the adjoining cubicle is reduced to a mildly annoying memory. Your work, while certainly having some meaning, likely will not have the same life and death consequences that you imagined them to have. What you will take with you is the experiences and knowledge you gained as well as the friendships you DECIDE to maintain. Everything else will be like an invitation to a 6 year olds birthday party.
So even as you work hard in your current phase of life, consider what it will be like to be gone.