Excesses and Externalities

The Problem with our Excesses

My previous post was about our desires to live a life that never involves any pain or suffering. We try to build a life for ourselves and our loved ones where every moment is happy, and where we never have to engage in drudgery, never experience physical discomfort, and never face any obstacles. Today’s post looks at another related aspect of our lives and mindsets that Sam Quinones highlights in his book Dreamland as part of our current opioid crisis: excesses.

 

Quinones is critical of our capitalistic culture that creates a message of buying things to find happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. The marketing departments of everything from soap companies, life insurance companies, to take-out restaurants suggests that happiness is right around the corner, as long as we are willing and able to buy more of what they offer. It is owning something bigger, having more, and expanding our consumption that is branded as a good life. But as Quinones sees it, “Excess contaminated the best of America.”

 

I studied public policy and I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts with economists. A common idea in the world of public policy and the mind of economists is the idea of externalities, secondary consequences of policies and peoples actions. Some externalities are positive, such as people developing a sense of civic pride after participating in an election, but many externalities are negative, such as green house gasses polluting the planet as we drive to and from work. What Quinones describes with the quote above, is the reality that our drive for excesses produces negative externalities that damage our planet and ultimately ruin the lifestyle that we chase.

 

By always wanting more, wanting it faster, and wanting it more tailored to our specific desires to make us feel like royalty, we have put ourselves in a place that is unsustainable. Our single use plastic bags have trashed our cities and open spaces. Having our individual cars to drive to everyplace we want to go emits more pollution than a well developed public transportation infrastructure. Over-purchasing consumer goods produces more garbage that has to go someplace.

 

This post has simply highlighted the reality that we live with negative externalities, and that our consumer driven culture is creating externalities which poison the planet. Quinones throughout his book focuses on the idea that our culture’s excesses have fueled the opioid epidemic by turning us inward toward our own wants versus encouraging us to think of others and how we can work together as part of a community. I think he is correct, and I think the space to start in making a change is by getting people to truly reflect on their lives, their purchases, and what they pursue. As Ryan Holiday put it in Stillness is the Key, “Eventually one has to say the e-word, enough. or the world says it for you.”

 

The way out of our opioid crisis, and indeed the way out of so many of our problems today, is to say enough to our own selfish desires. We need to stop the negative externalities that we produce when we purely pursue our own selfish ends, and instead we need to embrace our communities and put others first, to create more positive externalities which can heal our communities and fill the empty holes that consumerism leaves inside of us.
What is Deep Work

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is the opposite of the state of mind that many of us find ourselves in most of the time. One of the biggest challenges we face, is focusing on the important things. Our lives have become very busy, but not necessarily busy with more important work. Our lives have become busy with noise – in both the sense of unwanted sound, but also in the sense of the Merrian-Webster online dictionary definition of unwanted signals and disturbances.

 

At home, we often have the TV on for background noise, our phones have red notifications from multiple apps every time we open them, and we know that our social media feeds are constantly refreshing and offer us new things to see and look at. There is always something new, something distracting, and something to pull our attention away from the things which take substantial mental energy.

 

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport provides the following definition for Deep Work:

 

“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

 

The focus needed for deep work cannot be developed when we are constantly distracted. When we allow ourselves to be taken over by our phones, when we allow ourselves to have a million things pulling at our attention, when we constantly have some type of stimulation coming in while we do our chores, drive to work, and walk the dog, we train our brain to jump from one thought to another. Our daily life encourages a brain that cannot focus, destroying our ability to do deep work.

 

I have seen this in my own life. For 2 years I was working full time and in grad school. To get my work done, I had to work on focus, and I had to dedicate a lot of time to reading and completing school work. Outside of my job, I spent a lot of time trying to focus. A lot of house chores were ignored, but I found academic success, and found myself continually doing better focus work on the job as well.

 

A year after grad school, and into a boring job which doesn’t keep me as engaged as I would like, I have found my brain more distracted and I have found it harder to focus when I need to. I often watch YouTube videos while doing dishes, I listen to podcasts while doing laundry, and I find myself pulling up twitter or various blogs when I get bored. I have allowed myself to be distracted when I don’t need to be doing any deep work, and that has reduced my brain’s capacity to focus when I need to. I’m working against this now (partially thanks to a mental refocusing from Ryan Holiday’s book Stillness is the Key),  but it is hard work and requires that I think about what I am doing at any given moment and why.

 

Deep work is mentally taxing, and when the brain gets tired it wants to be distracted and shift to a low value cognitively easy task. However, if we focus on deep work, and train like an athlete to improve our thinking and focus, we can get better at it. We can push ourselves to be better at focusing on important things, and in the long run we will find that we can do better work, accomplish more important things in shorter periods of time, and be more focused when we need to be.