They say that the only constant in life is change. On a human level, it certainly rings true: we seem always to be changing something about ourselves.
Sometimes we come up with the changes ourselves, other times they’re pushed onto us by those who have authority over us. Both of these conduits of change are fed by culture.
In many ways, it seems like we want to appear more average than we actually are. Thinner, if we’re larger. Taller, if we’re shorter. There’s a genuine psychological pull for regression to the mean.
In a brilliant piece for Quillette, Robert Green tells us how it is:
“You need to come to terms with the fact that 95 percent of your ideas and opinions are not your own—they come what other people have taught you, from what you’re reading on the internet, from what other people are saying and doing. You’re a conformist—that’s who you are.
I’m like that, and everybody is like that and you realize that only by throwing some light on yourself and realizing that these qualities, these flaws that are built into us, they are inside you too. Only then can you begin to overcome them and use them for productive purposes.”
If you succumb to the gravity pulling you toward the center of culture, you’ll be in a constant state of change and chaos. Culture is too fickle a beast to be a good master. How could you ever develop a healthy sense of identity if who you are tomorrow will be so different from who you are today? I think there’s a very real cost to living in flux, and a very real profit to living as you are in the here and the now for a little while.
It’s easy to lose yourself with an expanding identity. As we progress through life, we have more resources available to us. We advance in our careers, and we complete time-consuming projects, we meet new people and/or move to new places with a variety of new ways to spend our time.
We become things that we weren’t before, but we hang onto who we were, too. This expands our identity - which leads to difficulty in maintaining a sense of self.
As Paul Graham said, we should seek to keep our identity small. Often any increase in identity (breadth) comes at the expense of depth. It’s very difficult (and probably impossible) to become a jack of all trades.
Even if you could, would you really want to? Having a surface level of knowledge of many things rarely rewards us in the way that deep engagement does. You can’t outrun the hedonic treadmill.
The feeling that accompanies change and new things doesn’t last very long. If you were in a car, accelerating from 0-60mph would feel like something significant. But then after maintaining a 60mph speed for a little while, it no longer feels as fast. We adapt quickly, and things become normal again.
What we notice is the change, the increases or decreases in our life. This is what happens when we buy things too. We feel something very real when we purchase a shiny new toy or when we sell or lose something we deeply valued. But generally owning something is like cruising along at 60mph.
What I’m going to try in 2020 (ed: update – also 2021!) is to take a depth year. I’m going to try to spend more time focused on the things that I know bring me joy and growth, instead of the things that I think will — because I have no idea who that future person is and what he values.
When we choose to do something new, we’re making judgments about our future values. We believe that in the future we’ll be the person who enjoys whatever it is that we’re trying to do. For the next year, I’m going to try to enjoy being the person I am right now, who does the things that I do. I recommend that you try the same (and if you do, please let me know how it goes!)