How We Think About Our Digital Tools

How We Think About Our Digital Tools

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport contrasts two types of approaches to the digital tools that we use and create. We have a lot of powerful social media and network messaging applications, and these tools and applications are often given to us, or seemingly forced onto us, without much choice on our end. If everyone we know is using Facebook, then we feel left out without it. If everyone in the office is using Slack for communications, then we feel that we must join in so that we don’t miss any important messages and updates. The tools we create put pressure on us to use them, even if we never wanted the tools to begin with.


Newport calls this standard approach to network tools the Any-Benefit Approach and he defines it this way, “You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.”


We don’t want to be left out of conversations at the water cooler, so we download social media apps to talk about what other people have said. We don’t want to miss a message about something in the office, so we join all the Slack channels at work. We might get an early insight into something our favorite sports team is doing, so we install the Twitter app. We don’t think critically about whether we get a lot of value from these network tools, we only ask if there is some potential benefit we might receive from the tool.


Newport describes the opposite strategy for determining what network tools we use as the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: “Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.” 


With this frame, we don’t add twitter unless we think it is going to really make our lives better to know what our favorite sports stars are up to. We don’t install social media apps if we think we will waste time with them or if we think that we will become jealous looking at all the cool things others are doing. Rather than worrying about what we might miss out on if we don’t get the app, we worry about what we might miss out on if we lose time and attention to the app. We bring in new applications at work if they help us perform better, not if they help us stay up on office gossip or give us a few popular tidbits to chat about during our breaks. Switching to the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection matters if we want to do meaningful work and be present with our families in meaningful ways.

Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.


This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.


Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.


Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”


My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.


As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.


Much of our life, especially if we spend a good amount of time engaging with social media, can feel like a performance of some kind. We have performance evaluations at work, we want to get that photo just right before we post it, and there are mirrors and people everywhere at the gym so it often feels like everyone is watching you for every squat that you do. In addition, we watch movies about great historical figures, read their diaries years after their death, and celebrate those who started small but ended up big. All of this creates a feeling that we are living for others and that they care what we do and what we are up to, so we better put forward something to entertain, impress, and display our complex skills and thoughts to everyone else.


In reality, however, almost no one is really aware of what we are doing from one moment to the next, and almost no one really is interested in what we think about all day long, and no one is going to dig back through our lives to write a book or direct a movie about our us. Spending time in this performance takes a lot of our energy that we could direct toward things that help our community and family members, but instead channels it into vain and self indulging activities to try to impress people we don’t really spend a lot of time with. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy, “There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.”


When we are in performance mode, we can certainly get a lot of work done and certainly do a lot of learning. The difference however, between actively engaging with the world out of curiosity and a desire to have a meaningful life and engaging with the world to boost ones status, is that one approach clouds your judgement with fears and thoughts about other people. It may not be possible to completely ignore what others think, and it may not be healthy to do so, but we should recognize that there are social impulses and drivers of our behavior and place those in the back seat, not the driver’s seat of our life. When we want to impress others, we never truly live and we risk pursuing things that appear to give life meaning rather than the things that we like and are interested in. As a result, we put more effort into the appearance of learning, working hard, and being interesting than we actually put into the things themselves. This leaves us in a place where we feel like a fraud and are fearful that people will find out that we are not who we look like in our performance of life. The advice from Holiday is to put the ego in the back seat (or maybe the trunk or even strapped down in a trailer behind us) and to focus on the things that interest us and are the most valuable to us. From this point we can meaningfully engage with the things we are motivated by and do great work, connect with our loved ones in an honest and open manner, and see the world and people around us in an objective and non threatening way.

Performances on Social Media

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me to better understand and recognize moments when I was allowing my ego to drive my behaviors and decision making. So much of our desires and motivations we hide from ourselves in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about who we are and what we do. We pursue things that give us rewards and social recognition, but we tell ourselves that is not why we are doing such things. One area where this is obvious is in our social media habits.


Regarding social media and ego, Holiday writes,
    “Blank spaces, begging to be filled in with thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what we’re going to do, with what things should or could be like, what we hope will happen. Technology, asking you, prodding you, soliciting talk.
    Almost Universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” Its rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.”


We tell ourselves that we use social media to keep up with friends and family. To know what loved ones and close acquaintances are up to. And we post to let them know what is going on in our lives and to share fun and interesting details about what we are up to.


But what Holiday has recognized and addresses in the passage above (something we all have seen and know in our hearts), is that we are really just posting on social media to look good and to get rewards from people liking our posts and telling us that we are doing something impressive or good. People often refer to Facebook as Bragbook and are good at catching other people behaving in an attention seeking way on social media, but are not always good at recognizing this in themselves. It is helpful to recognize exactly how we are using social media and to try to adjust our behavior in a more honest way. Rather than asking ourselves what will get the most positive social recognition we can at least ask if what we are posting is truly for us and to keep our friends in the loop with something we want people to know about, or if we are simply trying to seek sympathy, congratulations, or to incite envy in other people. Everything we post is a signal of one sort or another, and everything we do on social media is to some degree a performance. We have the choice of making that performance an ego boosting yet hollow ostentatious display, or a more honest and real snapshot of our lives.

The Tech Empowered Ego

Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego Is the Enemy, is a critique and critical evaluation of the way our ego can dominate our lives and create challenges for us that are hard to overcome. In his book, Holiday addresses the ways in which social media technologies fuel our egos and drive self-congratulatory behaviors. The ability to communicate our egos to a wide audience has never been easier, and if we are not aware of it, we can easily begin blasting our ego across the internet and across technology in plain view for anyone who wants to see (and for those who do not want to see).


What technology and ego blasting leads to is captured in the following quote from Holiday, “…we’re told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” we think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan–after all that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (but did  they? Did they really?) We see risk taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose.”


Our technology doesn’t share everyone’s ego equally. It is used to share the most lavish and extreme egos, or the worlds of those who claim to be the most successful. In a race to increase our status, we share more and more on social media and make ever greater efforts to distinguish ourselves from others by having the biggest goals, being the most unique and creative, and taking the biggest leaps and most daring risks. The problem is that for many of us, this is the wrong approach, and instead incremental growth is what we should focus on. For many of us, success is not as easy to come by as it looks on social media. We are all starting at different places and we all have positive and negative moments in each and every day. The ego blast of social media doesn’t show the advantages that another person had from birth, the challenges that another person has faced to get where they are, and social media hides the incremental changes and steps that lead to the big moments that we all want to share. Furthermore, sharing those big moments and receiving thumbs-up from all our peers tells us that this type of ego inflation is what we should be doing, and it fuels a part of us that wants to live and act for other people, and not for ourselves. This takes away from the value of the present moment and puts more pressure on us to live for others and try to be a virtual person that lives up to an impossible ego.

An Eagerness to Connect

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman explains a very simple psychology experiment performed by Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott in 1970.  In an attempt to study reciprocity, the two psychologists sent christmas letters to randomly selected names and addresses from a local phone book.  Wiseman did not provide numbers, but he did say that a majority of the people who had been sent Christmas Cards responded to the letter they received from Kunz and Woolcott.  The study highlights that people have a desire to reciprocate the positive and considerate actions of other people. I read a little more from this study adding my own note to the section I just described.  To me, the entire experiment showed how eager people are to connect with others.


Sending someone a letter engages with them on their own terms.  We are sending them something that will meet them in their own comfortable home in a nonthreatening manner, and this makes it easy for people to respond and build a social bridge.  When we are willing to meet people on their own terms and engage with people in areas that are comfortable for them, we will get positive responses that build the social structure around us.


I think this would be an interesting experiment to perform in the United States today.  It was not clear from Wiseman’s writing whether Kunz and Woolcott performed their experiment in the United States or Wiseman’s home country of England, and I believe that the continental differences could have a large impact on the results.  I think the most interesting factor in a similar experiment today would be the social media, advertising, and identity theft impact on our social behaviors.  Receiving messages from strangers on Facebook can be a scary thing and having someone watch us through social media channels can be creepy to the point where you wonder if someone is following you to gain information that could be used to either harm you or market goods and services to you.


I am sure that in our very connected world, sending electronic correspondence, depending on the social media channel, would show very different reciprocity results than sending a holiday letter in the 1970’s.  Randomly messaging/mentioning a person on twitter is far more accepted and will get greater rates of response then messaging a stranger on Facebook.  Outside of the electronic world, sending a letter through the mail would still be an interesting experiment.  Our lives may be more complicated and busy than the lives of British citizens in the 1970’s, and we are less accustomed to receiving letters from people whether we know them or not. Having Americans take the time to sit down and read a letter from a stranger and then actually reply could be a rare occurrence in 2015 even though we are wired to reciprocate or at least by social.
Preparing for Life's Challenges

Preparing for Life’s Challenges

In James Harmon’s collection of letters published in his book Take My Advice, he includes a letter written by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In her letter Nussbaum writes about our connection and dependence on others, and what we should focus on to build meaningful and successful lives. Nussbaum writes, “We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.” This quote reminds me of a topic that I have written about before in regards to social media. With our digital lives we spend a lot of time focusing on the lives of other people, and we compare ourselves to our friends and judge ourselves relative to what we see of others online.

I believe that Nussbaum would find our social media comparisons to be a dangerous thing for each individual because we will begin to judge ourselves based on the things we have in our lives relative to others. When we see people taking exciting trips, buying new things, or just being fully happy with some situation, we inevitably build a small block of envey towards others. On the other end of the equation when all of our actions relate back to impressing other people and finding encouragement through social media, we fail to live a life that has a deep meaning. When our happiness is dependent on the approval of other people we do not have the support system necessary to help us through rough patches.

Nussbaum in her quote is advocating for a society that focuses more on the reality of life and not the fantasies of material possessions. When our entire focus is on outside rewards, buying things, and receiving praise for monetary success, we become trapped in a box where our lives are defined by materialism. Without achieving a certain level of financial success or without purchasing certain cars or clothes a person who judges the world by outward displays of material success will feel like a failure. The quote above shows that this lifestyle may be sustainable when things are going well, but once a promotion does not occur or an illness presents itself, the individual does not have a strong moral foundation to stand upon. When we base all of our actions and lives around achieving more, we lose a focus on building real relationships and risk forcing ourselves down paths that will not benefit us in the long run.

If we shift our focus and ideas of success then we can eliminate the little voice in our heads that tells us we need to achieve a certain job to impress our friends, family, or the strangers in line at the grocery store. We can begin to work towards things that truly excite and interest us rather than striving to pursue what advertisements and society has told us to work towards. This helps our lives have a deeper meaning, and can create a greater sense of self confidence so when we do reach points of struggle, we can focus on the important aspects of life, and overcome our challenges.

How Understanding Dependence can Lead to Gratefulness

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote of confidence, relationships, and dependence in her letter to James Harmon to be published in the book, Take My Advice.  On dependence she wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.”  This quote struck me as being very honest about our nature and our inner feelings in a world where we go out of our way to project visions of our best and happiest selves.

As our lives fill up with Facebook and LinkedIn, our online persona becomes a competition to see who can lead the most exciting, the most attractive, and the most impressive lives in both our social and professional lives.  The images we share with the world are our personal highlights, and the goal is to make us look strong, confident, and happy.  What we miss when we compare our lives to the lives of others on social media is the moments between the highlights, when each person must deal with self doubt, uncertainty, and fear.  Nussbaum’s quote helps me remember that I am not the only person who experiences these doubts when I compare myself to others online or in person.

I think it is important to consider how dependent we are on the planet for our own survival.  We are not just dependent on natural resources, but in many ways we are dependent on the systems we have built, people who maintain those systems, and supportive people around us. When we focus on how much we depend on others we can be grateful for the guidance, assistance, and services we receive from others. Cultivating this awareness can help us see how important it is to reciprocate those actions and feelings.  When good things happen in our lives it is tempting to blow up social media with our awesomeness and take credit for our accomplishment or good fortune, but I think Nussbaum would encourage us to instead give thanks, and to recognize the incredible system of support and assistance on which we depended, and from which our accomplishments materialize.