Bored in Space

Bored In Space

“With each successive mission, space exploration becomes a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom,” writes Mary Roach in Packing for Mars. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and that means that we adjust to extraordinary circumstances and accept them as normal once they have been part of our lives for a long enough period of time. In Packing for Mars Roach explains that this has happened with space travel. Riding a massively explosive rocket outside the earths atmosphere and living in a confined space beyond the protective shell of the Earth is an incredible achievement for all of humanity. And it is also routine and hardly thought about by most people. In some ways it is inspiring that space travel is hardly inspiring. It means we have succeeded beyond a level any human could have imagined just a couple hundred years ago. It is also, however, somewhat depressing. It means we don’t recognize just how far our technological innovations have taken us, and we don’t always appreciate just how much we have learned and done through scientific exploration.
Today is an interesting time to be thinking about human adaptability, unprecedented times that become normal and routine, and major discoveries that could reshape our world. We have been dealing with a global pandemic that many of us have simply accepted at this point in time. Many of us just want to ignore it and move on with our lives. We have adapted to the risks of COVID-19, maybe modified our behaviors and life patterns a little bit, and we barely think about the number of cases and deaths from the disease each day. Early in the pandemic I spent an unreasonable amount of time looking at case statistics, charts, and trend lines of what was happening with the virus. Now, with two vaccine doses under my belt (or in my arm) I hardly think about case counts, even though I am aware of breakthrough infections and rising deaths across the country. I have simply adapted and the story of COVID-19 as normal and sometimes boring. I know I am not the only one in this boat, and that is part of why the pandemic hasn’t ended.
The pandemic also brought us breakthroughs with MRNA vaccines in the last year, a big scientific step forward in fighting diseases and developing vaccines for many diseases in the future. This was the key to returning the world to some sort of normalcy and vaccine news was huge for a few months, but now my sense is that many of us expect to get a booster shot, but that it barely registers in our day to day thinking. Vaccines, just as space travel, are amazing, but routine and boring (at least for the 49.6% of Americans who are vaccinated according to the CDC on 8/28/2021).
I think it is important that we be aware of how adaptable we are as human beings. Just as we get used to the idea of people living on space stations and vaccines being developed for deadly diseases, we adapt to our spouses and partners who were once the most exciting sparks in our lives. We adapt to the houses we live in, the cars we  drive, the restaurants we eat at, and everything that becomes a  normal part of our routines. We become bored living lives that our ancestors could only dream of. We fail to appreciate how wonderful some of the relationships in our lives are, we stop being thankful for the nice things we live with, and we become bored with miracle innovations like safe drinking water. When we don’t appreciate these things we don’t give them the attention they deserve, and things can break down and atrophy, only to remind us of how fortunate we were to have that thing. We should pause and think about how amazing our lives may be (recognizing that many of us have serious challenges to overcome in our lives), and we should try to be amazed by even the simple things we have come to take for granted. We are incredibly adaptable and that can help us survive in extreme circumstances, but it can also mean that we fail to appreciate the small miracles that make our lives worth living.
Doing Hard Things Consistently

Doing Hard Things Consistently

We live in a world where there are a lot of opportunities to default to something easy and we constantly have the ability to take a quick break to pass a few minutes with mindless distractions. We can fill any quiet moment with music or a podcast, scroll through Facebook in line at the grocery store, and pop over to a blog really quick when we are bored or stuck on a problem at work. Distraction and easy alternatives to hard work are everywhere.

 

But if we want to get stuff done, if we want to produce something meaningful, and if we want to cultivate an ability to focus for long stretches to be our best selves, then we need to find ways to get beyond these easy distractions. We have to find a way to set ourselves up so that doing hard things consistently is not a mountain moving challenge.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport helps us think through this. For Newport, it is all about creating habits and routines that can unlock our potential and help us achieve the things we want. As he writes, “An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.” 

 

The quote above is specifically about knowledge workers and creative types who produce work in our modern age. Yet it shows us the importance of creating a structure and developing a routine to do what we do. Bouncing around and doing some work for a few minutes here and there won’t cut it if we actually want to produce results. We can’t be haphazard in our approach to work, we have to be deliberate and develop methods that encourage focus and concentration.

 

Newport also shares a somewhat famous story of a comedian who asked Jerry Seinfeld for advice relatively early in both men’s careers. Seinfeld’s advice was to write jokes every day, and to get a big calendar to use to cross out the date for every day that the comic wrote a joke. Newport describes this as the chain method and uses it to highlight the importance of rhythmic habits for consistently doing hard things. “The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.” 

 

If you always have to pick between various activities and choices, you will rarely choose to do the deep work necessary to produce something meaningful. Instead, the laundry on the guest bed, the sink full of dishes, those emails you keep forgetting about, and checking back on Tyler Cowen’s blog will become your default activities when you don’t have a plan for what to work on and when to work on it. The only way to consistently drive to do meaningful deep work is to develop a space, a time, and a routine in which you do deep work. Making it a habit and endowing it with special rituals to help you ease into the work can unlock your focusing potential, and help ensure that each day you find a way to engage with the deep and meaningful work that you want to do, but that can be hard to consistently engage with.

Unpredictability

Come Back Frayed is Colin Wright’s book about his time in the Philippines and his evaluations of the way that people exist within and between cultures. He focuses on his personal reactions to changing environments and life in an area of the world that sounds amazing, but can actually be quite inhospitable for long stretches of time. Addressing how we react to the places we live and the order in our lives, he writes, “We all have a different level of tolerance for unpredictability and incomprehension. Some of us have a tolerance that is almost a need: we require novelty and a regular dollop of confusion and disorientation to feel complete. We need to have our world set spinning so that we can ever so slowly bring it back to a more regular rotation on a sturdy axis.”

 

The quote above seems to very accurately describe Wright himself, and it resonates strongly with me despite the fact that I am incredibly routine focused. I do not do well when it comes to planning long term for vacations and I feel that I really perform well when I can build a set schedule that incorporates the things I love like, running, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. But despite my love for routines and the benefits of performance and success that routines bring, I also recognize the human need to get away from what Tyler Cowen calls “the status quo bias”, and wright is an excellent example of how manage such a feat, and why shaking up our worlds can be so important.

 

Wright explains that he also thrives with strong routines, particularly in regards to health and writing practices, but by traveling consistently and exploring the world, Wright has been able to incorporate vastly different perspectives of the world into the frames from which he understands the universe. He has allowed his travel destinations and living places to be directed for him by his fans, and it was actually his fans’ suggestions that sent him to the Philippines. Along the way, Wright has been able to expand his thought processes and tolerance for change while also recognizing how routine actions, such as simple exercise and writing habits, can allow one to stay grounded, disciplined, healthy, and proficient during times of change in wildly different social and cultural environments.

 

My life in Reno, Nevada is not the most exciting of all time, although in a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen argues that boring environments can push one to explore in greater depth the online world (for example blogging), but I enjoy the region and the routines afforded to me. Learning to incorporate Wright’s strategy for travel would help me shake up my world in a way that would give me new perspectives. Wright would argue that changing my routine and challenging the comforts and consistency it offers would push me to grow and discover new parts of myself, creating engaging and exciting experiences to help me feel more connected to myself, society, and perhaps all of humanity. From the interview I listened to I think Cowen would agree that efforts to avoid status quo bias can pay off in the long run and satisfy some part of our humanity that craves change, even if we have a small tolerance for the novelty and uncertainty it brings.