Umair Haque - Mi, 04/10/2013 - 22:46
Here's a tiny question: what do you do when reach the edge of heartbreak? Consider the story of my good friend Priya. Let go from a successful career in finance, with no new opportunities on the horizon, Priya bravely decided to write a book about careers and meaning. One long year later, Priya's blown through her savings, broken up with her partner, moved back to her parents' place, and generally feels like her so-called future just went Vesuvius.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of...whatever. Ah, screw it: what's the point, anyways? In that sentiment, Priya's hardly alone. If you're under the age of 35 and/or worth less than a few dozens of millions, you probably get the sinking feeling, by now, that you're being written off by today's leaders. Here's the inconvenient truth...you are.
I don't mean to get post-Bieber power ballad emo on you, but the great danger of this great hurricane of a never-ending crisis is that our will to live is quietly diminished. Not in the sense of jumping screaming off the nearest bridge — but in the less noticeable yet perhaps more lethal sense of resigning ourselves to mediocrity, triviality, lives we don't want because they don't feel they count. Hence: the great obligation you and I have right here, right now, then, children of the hurricane, isn't merely to give up on life — but precisely the opposite: to redouble our furious pursuit of lives well lived.
I believe that each and every one us is here for a reason. Go ahead: get it out of your system. Roll your eyes, purse your lips, LOL, luxuriously wallow in cynicism for a moment — and then consider what tends to happen to those that have no great, abiding reason to be here. They sink, ineluctably, into depression; life seems to pass them by; they feel powerless, hopeless, fatalistic, and finally, come to see themselves as refugees from life; not creators of lives.
You and I know: homo economicus is about as good a role model as the love child of Freddy Krueger and Alien. Each and every one of us needs more than mere stuff and trinkets if we are to fully pursue happiness. We know: we need friends, security, stability, status, respect if we are to have a fighting chance at glimmers of contentment, delight, joy. Yet there is a truer need still: a reason to live fully, wholly, searingly; a reason that elevates us, at our best, past the mundane, and into the noble, good, and true. And unless this need is answered, our lives will always feel somehow reduced, lessened, blunted, a masterpiece seen through a veil of gauze, achingly incomplete. Each and every one of us is here for a reason; and it is that reason that anchors our stretching branches firmly in the soil of life.
So here's the deal, broski. You and I don't need a reason merely for romantic reasons; to add a celestial veneer of bogus miracle to the dreary predictability of our lives. Each and every one needs a reason for the most pragmatic of reasons: to evoke the best, noblest, and truest in us; and so to persevere in the pursuit of lives well lived. The tiny miracle of life is us — and whom we can choose to become.
So here are my five tiny rules for creating your reason.
Total surrender. Everyday for the last year, Priya's gone to the café and...checked her Facebook. The self-help books and the mystical gurus will tell you: just imagine hard enough, and the life you so fervently desire will — poof!! — manifest. Let's be honest: it's a pleasant fairy tale for the nail-bitingly insecure. The simple truth is: If you want to live a life worth living, you have to do a lot (lot) more than merely wish for it: you have to work for it. And not merely in the brain-dead sense of "80 hours a week, at a job you hate, with people you hate, for a boss you want to stab, doing work that makes you want to projectile vomit, to benefit sociopathic shareholders that would rather see you miserable, fat, broke, and dead than fulfilled." I mean work for it in a more profund sense: you must work to create a reason that demands from you nothing less than the furious, uncompromising pursuit of a life well lived; and if, like Priya, your so-called reason's leading you to spin your wheels and go nowhere fast...it's probably not one powerful enough to surrender to.
Absolute clarity. A reason is not a purpose. Priya's real mistake is that she's confused a purpose — writing books — with a reason: why the books must (not should, but absolutely, totally, must, or else your whole life will feel empty, wasted, pointless, over) be written. Imagine you were a master stonemason. Your purpose might be to build a great cathedral. But your reason might be to approach the divine, to leave a legacy, or simply to do great work. A purpose, then, is a set of accomplishments — but a reason is the animating force behind them; it is the "why" that gives sense to the "what"; and without it, all our "whats" may end up being empty, barren, senseless in the terms of a life that feels well lived. Priya, like many people I know, is a stonemason with a blueprint — but no incendiary, unstoppable, inescapable reason to begin building.
Real life. So if, like Priya, you can't quite seem to put your finger on your reason, how do you begin? Here's the trick. The reason isn't found, or discovered. It is created. It is the great act of a life; the culminating act that joins our choices and decisions into a trajectory that resonates. A purpose is what you make: a book, a company, a bonus. A reason is what you live: knowledge, art, enlightenment, and more. What do you want your life to be? What is it that you want to live? When it comes not just to stuff, but to life, what is that you want to enact? You can't answer this question like Priya's been trying to: "books". You must answer it in a more fundamental sense — "knowledge," "art," "education," "enlightenment." All these are better answers, in Priya's case. They're tiny steps beyond purpose, and towards the beginnings of a reason.
Radical simplicity. You can't create your reason if your life is, pardon my French, full of bullshit. The answers above share one thing in common: they're radically simple. Worthy, enduring, fulfilling reasons always are — because the timeless truths of life, which reasons exist to illuminate, are deceptively simple. So, forgive me, beancounters, but (as Priya still thinks) a reason is not a corporate mission statement ("To leverage my educational assets and optimize my career path!!"): it is the very opposite: a radically simple statement of why your life matters enough to you to fully, dangerously live it...past the edge.
Brutal honesty. You can't create your reason if, pardon my French, you are full of shit. There are many reasons; but not all reasons are created equal. And you probably can't create a worthy one if you're not brutally honest with yourself about it. Raising a family and imbuing it with love; this is a grand and timeless reason; it elevates life. Vidal Sassoon's reason: to bring art back to hairdressing? That's a fantastic one. Pixar's reason: creating heartwarming stories that bring people of all ages together? Works for me. Making minigames for advertisers to sell stuff to people they don't really want to buy with money they don't really have to live lives they don't really feel? That's a sucky reason, because it impoverishes life. Of course, the minigame maker might feel, in the moment, his work is rewarding — and it may be lucrative. But it isn't likely to feel whole, for the simple reason that it's reason is wanting in terms of meaningful human outcomes. The point here is not to create arbitrary divisions between which reasons are valid and which are lacking. The point is to start asking yourself, really: what is your reason? What would make it "good"? If you want to grab the top job at that megabank — why? If your reason is "to make a big pile of money," you might want to think again. Why do you think, having made his billions, Bill Gates is trying to fix the world? He needs a bigger, better, truer reason.
Perhaps it's true. Not all of us successfully create our reasons. But that is precisely why we must try. For it is in the reasonless that we see the power of life's reason: the reason gives sense to life, and without sense, life feels like a maze, a trap, a game, an absurdity. We need a reason, because our reasons are what liberate us from lives that feel senseless.
Yet, Priya's little parable tells us: reasons aren't rational; they are larger than that: they are constructive. They aren't tidy equations and models of life — yet nor are they mere wishes nor affirmations. They are the words in the language of life and death; words that come to compose the untidy, messy, often contradictory, thoroughly inconclusive stories we tell ourselves about what it means to have lived. And so they matter because they allow our lives, finally, to make startling glimmers of sense amidst the cruel senselessness and insensible beauty of the searing human experience. Only a reason has the magic to ignite, in the void, the spark; that comes to make a life feel that it has been more than accidents of fate colliding with chance.
And so it seems to me that you and I — the sons and daughters of the Lesser Depression, the orphans of modernity — we have three choices. We may retreat. We may revolt. Or we may rebel. We may retreat into digiphoria; the cold, joyless comfort of softly glowing screens. We may revolt, turning away in disgust, and become, in time, something like the leaders we scorn. Or we may rebel — and choose, here and now, even in the full fury of the storm, to answer the awesome challenge of lives well lived.
Reason is rebellion. It is through the creation of reasons to live fully that we rebel — and ignite lives worth living, instead of merely resigning ourselves to those that feel as if they aren't. In reason, we rebel against immovable destiny, and gain a measure of freedom back from the stars.
Grace, then, is born in reason. And it is grace that gives us, finally, the power to love. To, through the heartbreak, the grief, and the joy, breathe life into possibility, and so breathe possibility into life. And that is what a life that feels burstingly whole, achingly full, timelessly true, is really all about: the power to love. And only a reason as solid and true as bedrock can give it to you.
So allow me to ask you again: what do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak? Here's my tiny answer: you create a reason to take you past the edge of heartbreak. And into big love, mighty grace, searing meaning, and limitless purpose. Hence, my question: what's your reason?
Kategorien: Umair Haque
Umair Haque - Mi, 03/06/2013 - 00:27
What was your favorite TED talk this year? I found both Amanda Palmer's and Nilofer's spectacular. Yet, this year, TED made me wonder about Great Ideas, and our relationship with them. And I began to ask myself: even if we enjoy a great TED talk, should the rise of "TED thinking" concern us just a tiny bit?
Let me be very clear: I use that phrase not to refer to the extravaganza that is TED, and though I use TED as an example, this post isn't really just about TED — but let the phrase "TED thinking" serve as a shorthand for the way we've come to think about ideas and how we share them, whether it's through an 18-minute talk, an 800-word blog post, or the latest business "best-seller." Hence, this post isn't really about TED (so please don't leave me raging comments saying "But my favorite TED talk!!!"). "TED thinking" is just a symptom: and the underlying syndrome is our broken relationship with Great Ideas. Herewith, my tiny argument:
TED thinking assumes complex social problems are essentially engineering challenges, and that short nuggets of Technology, Edutainment, and Design can fix everything, fast and cheap. TED thinking's got a hard determinism to it; a kind of technological hyperrationalism. It ignores institutions and society almost completely. We've come to look at these quick, easy "solutions" as the very point of "ideas worth spreading."
But this seems to me to miss the point and power of ideas entirely. Einstein's great equation is not a "solution"; it is a theory — whose explanations unravel only greater mysteries and questions. It offers no immediate easy, quick "application" in the "real world," but challenges us to reimagine what the "real world" is; it is a Great Idea because it offers us something bigger, more lasting, and more vital than a painless, disposable "solution."
Yet in the eyes of TED thinking, it is of limited, perhaps little, value. One can imagine Einstein being invited to give a TED talk on E=MC2 — and the audience wondering "Well, what's the point of this? What can we use it to do? How can we make megabucks from this, next year?" When ideas are reduced to engineering challenges, the focus naturally becomes near-term utility in the so-called real world. We focus on implementation without ever stopping to question our assumptions. But Great Ideas don't resound because they have "utility" in the real world — they are Great for the very reason that they challenge us to redefine the reality of our worlds; and hence, the "utility" of our lives.
So Great Ideas aren't just "solutions". Indeed, many of the Greatest Ideas are problems. Guernica doesn't offer any solutions to the problem of human suffering: it asks us to do something more vital, and more worthy: to reflect on, consider, and perhaps so gain a truer intimacy with the problem of war, violence, atrocity, and its permanence throughout history. Picasso would never have been invited to deliver a TED talk about Guernica because it offers no quick, easy, palatable solution ("Human Violence: Let's End It!!" #fivewordTEDtalks). Instead, it offers the precise opposite: a hard, unflinching, uncompromising portrait of grief. TED talks get rapturous standing ovations — but stand in front of Guernica for 18 minutes and exactly the opposite will happen: you will, and should, cry.
Great Ideas, then, don't merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that's precisely what makes them Great.
Now: Yes, there was recently a TEDx in Pakistan — and there, beset by fundamentalism and violence, I believe it's a tremendous force for good. But that's the lowest of bars. You and I must aim higher.
The idea of our age is that Great Ideas can be simplified, reduced, made into convenient, disposable nuggets of infotainment — be they 18-minute talks, 800-word blog posts, or 140 character bursts. But can they — really? Could Aristotle really deliver the resounding, history-redefining message of the Nicomachean Ethics in...eighteen minutes? Or a series of "thought leader" blog posts on LinkedIn? Or would that, in a very real sense, cheat you and I of the power and purpose, the meaning and message, the very import and impact of the larger body of work?
Imagine I invented an Orgasm Machine. Press the button, and poof!! Effortless, instantaneous climax. Sounds great, right? But my machine would also rob you. Perhaps not of pleasure; but of the tension of love, the challenge of desire, and the drama of sex. TED is like an Orgasm Machine for the human mind. It gives us the climax of epiphany, without the challenge and tension of thought.
And in that way, I think TED thinking cheats us. Not just the "audience," but all of us. By putting climactic epiphany before experience, education, and elevation. Sure, we can spend our lives, in this digital age, getting quick hits of epiphany from our pundit overlords. In that sense, TED thinking is like a one-night stand with ideas. One night stands can be fun, and may sometimes even lead to something more — but they're not the great, worthy love affairs that change our lives. So I worry: TED thinking encourages something like an obsession with trivia — when it's the searing, painful, transformative experience of Big Love you and I should be aiming at.
The TED-ification of ideas turns them into something like superficial commodities. Yet, Big Love is never just skin-deep: it involves mind, heart, body, and soul. And so while "turning complex ideas into plain English" is surely important, critical thinking asks all of us to get not just comfortable with "communication", but uncomfortable with all the complexity, ambiguity, and nuance of a great relationship.
"Ideas conferences" like TED present us with something like an ethical vacuum. There are no sources of evil in TED world — apart from a "lack." Insufficient Technology, Edutainment, and Design (or "innovation", "growth", "insights"): these are the only shortcomings the human world faces. There is no venality; no selfishness; no cruelty; no human weakness that is not readily amenable to the cure-all of Perfect Technology, Edutainment, and Design.
Hence, in TED world, there are heroes, but no villains. There are self-reliant supermen; but no rent-seekers, no criminals, no charlatans, no mountebanks, no fraudsters, schemers, or...just plain humans. There is good, but no evil. No ethics is possible given this calculus. It is an anti-ethics that perfectly describes the vacuity of our age. In this sense, TED thinking is a kind of Nietzschean enterprise: one beyond good and evil, where Supermen save the world. Yet, the real world asks us to have an ethical calculus precisely because the human heart is capable of great cruelty; of evil, of indescribable atrocity.
To me, this is the greatest and truest failure of today's idea industry: it is a mind without a heart. TED thinking cheats us of the better angels of our nature; of ethos itself, the highest, truest, and noblest of all the arts of human thought.
Great ideas, then, demand something from us — something more than pleasure. They demand more than just our "attention" — and far more than our standing ovations. They demand not just our eyes, wallets, and hands, but our hearts, minds, and souls. They demand our heartbreak, our hurt. They demand our minds don't just "accept" — but, as critical thinkers, object, protest, question.
In this way, Great Ideas demand precisely the opposite of TED thinking. They demand our lasting engagement, dedication and commitment; our time and energy; our frustration and infuriation; our suffering, passion, and pain — not merely our easy wonder and wide-eyed astonishment. They demand not just our rapture, but something more human: every bit of our fuller, truer, better selves.
That is precisely how Great Ideas change us: not merely by pleasing us, but by challenging us. That is precisely how they elevate us: not merely by pandering to us, or by provoking us, but by enlightening the whole of us. That is precisely what makes Great Ideas truly worthy — not just easily palatable, and commercially profitable.
Let me be clear: once again, this isn't just about TED — but the ideas industry, and how, ironically, it oft seems hell-bent on turning each and every human on planet Earth into either a breathless "pundit" or a zombified "consumer". But we are better — each and every one of us — than that. We are pilgrims on a hard journey; searching for the timeless, simple truths of lives well-lived. The pundits shout to our caravans from the bazaars, touting their potions and tonics. But it is only Great Ideas, waystones shimmering faintly in the distance, which have pointed and will point generations of voyagers before us and after us, that will guide us towards the waters of life itself. That is why they matter.
"TED thinking" is shorthand for the ideas industry's obsessive, infantilizing, and creepily weird fixation with "innovation", with "growth", with "change", with "value", "utility", and "marketability." It is the epiphany industry. But epiphany should never be an industry. Why? Not just because such a casual approach to human thought reduces and simplifies, stripping and emptying us. But because it promises to spoil the timeless beauty of The Real Thing: The very idea of Great Ideas. The notion that ideas are worthy not merely because they "solve our problems" — but because they challenge us with problems to which our lives are the truest answers.
Kategorien: Umair Haque
Umair Haque - Do, 01/24/2013 - 21:08
Let's cut the crap. Life is short, you have less time than you think, and there are no baby unicorns coming to save you. So rather than doling out craptastic advice to you about Making!! It!! To!! The!! Top!!™, let me humbly ask: do you want to have a year that matters — or do you want to spend another year starring-slash-wallowing in the lowest-common-denominator reality show-slash-whiny soap opera of your own inescapable mediocrity-slash-self-imposed tragedy?
If (congratulations) your unquenched desire to have better than a smoking trainwreck of a so-called life exceeds your frenzied mania for spending another 365 days wallowing in a sea of junk-food wrappers, then — don't worry, I'll be gentle — here are a few tiny questions.
Why are you here? I don't mean to induce a full blown heart palpitation accompanied panic attack filled existential crisis in you (or maybe I do) — so let's keep it simple. This coming year: why are you (really) here? There are plenty of answers to this biggest of questions — but, no: all answers aren't created equal. There are poor ones, which will probably lead to a long, dull, dismal, rainy Sunday of a year. And there are better ones — which just might begin to explosively unfurl a life that feels fully worth living. Allow me to break it down for you.
What do you want? Here are some perfectly valid answers, if tedious mediocrity's the limit of your horizon this year: money, sex, power, fame, keeping up with the Kardashians. Here are some better answers, if a year in a life meaningfully well lived is what you're after. To make a difference. To transform something that sucks. To create that which transforms. To build that which counts. To experience what's true. To do stuff that matters.
How much does it matter? Here are some pretty good answers, if a snoozer of a year in a cavernous landfill of a life is what you're after. To your boss, her boss, his boss, or their boss. To shareholders, to the markets, to "consumers." Here are some better answers, if you want this to be a year that one day that, in a surprisingly short time, you don't just remember, but that you still savor: to society, to humanity, to tomorrow. To the timeless spirit of furious impossibility that characterizes the art of human excellence — not just to the zombie vampire robots that make up the bulk of our beige, big-box, yawn-inducingly banal infomercial-for-dystopia of a so-called economy.
What's it going to take? You don't get to a life well lived using the tired capabilities and skills built to Farmville the cubefarm. You need to "use" not just your whole mind, but to learn to employ your whole being: mind, heart, soul, and body. If nothing less than a life worth living's your goal, you probably need to nurture not just the so-called pseudoscientific skills of a sartorially power-suited spreadsheet jockey — counting beans, pillaging the townsfolk, sweetly stabbing your peers in the back, all the while slickly glad-handing your higher-ups — but the arts of empathy, humility, passion, imagination, rebellion, to name just a few.
Who's on your side? A life meaningfully well lived isn't a Western, and you're not John Wayne (although I bet you, like me, look darn good in a cowboy hat). Rugged individualism is nice in theory, but the truth is: if you're going to make a difference, you're probably not going to make it happen all by your lonesome. So who are your mentors and allies, friends and peers? Who's at your back, manning your sails, crewing your boat? Here's a hint: if you look around and your boat's empty, learn to lead. Challenge, provoke, inspire, connect — and then, harder still, evoke the best in people. For it is the best in us that, in turn, elevates our capacity to love; the truest currency of a life well lived. And so respect is earned — and love given — not just to those who pander, but those who matter.
Where's your true north? If you're going to live a life that matters, you need an ethical compass: a belief system with a true north that points toward values that are in some sense enduringly, meaningfully good. Lance Armstrong's true north seems to have been trophies — not championships; and the result, I'd bet, is a life that now feels arid, empty, wasted. So what's your true north? In what direction do you find the stuff that makes life "good"? Does your true north point to consumption, status, transactions — instead of investment, accomplishments, relationships? If it's the former, I'd bet: a life well lived is going to remain as elusive to you as it's been to Lance.
What breaks your heart? Follow your passion, we're often told. But how do you find your passion? Let me put it another way: what is it that breaks your heart about the world? It's there that you begin to find what moves you. If you want to find your passion, surrender to your heartbreak. Your heartbreak points towards a truer north — and it's the difficult journey towards it that is, in the truest sense, no mere passing idyllic infatuation, but enduring, tempestuous passion.
What's it worth? A life well lived isn't partytime with the airheads at the McClubs in Ibiza. And here's the inconvenient truth: it's going to take more than the tired old refrains of hard work, dedication, commitment, and perseverance. It's going to take very real heartbreak, sorrow, grief, and disappointment. Only you can decide how much is too much. Is it worth it? Aaron Swartz, who packed an astonishing amount into his short 26 years, was relentlessly persecuted by an overweening prosecutor — and tragically took his own life in part for it. Van Gogh, of course, famously died for his art. A life well lived always demands one asks of one's self: is it worth it? Is the heartache worth the breakthrough; is the desolation worth the accomplishment; is the anguish balanced by the jubilation; perhaps, even, are the moments of bitter despair, sometimes, finally, the very instants we treasure most? There's no easy answer, no simplistic rule of thumb. The scales of life always hang before us — and always ask us to weigh the burden of our choices carefully.
Sure, you might read all the above and mutter: "Duuude? Check me Broseph. All I really want is a mega-bonus, a lifetime membership to the VIP room, and the keys to a Maserati." Welcome, then, to bootylicious mediocrity. For mediocrity isn't the poor, hardscrabble immigrant cleaning the bathroom at the 7-11: it's the lucky trust fund kid who could've, just maybe, lived a life worth living — and thinks a life worth living is a loft, a corner office, a sports car, and a designer coffee machine instead. All that stuff's nice — but entirely besides the point. Of life. For the simple, timeless truth is: You'll never find the rapture of accomplishment in mere conquest, the incandescence of happiness in mere possession, or the searing wholeness of meaning in mere desire. You can find them only — only — in the exploration of the fullness of human possibility.
Hence: every moment of every day of this year, and every year that follows, what I want you to map is the uncharted shore of potential: the capacity of life to dream, wonder, imagine, create, build, transform, better, and love; the infusion of the art of living into the heart of every instant of existence.
We've been taught to be obedient rationalists. And the rationalists say: there's no magic in the world. But they miss the point. There's a kind of quiet magic that each and every one of us is condemned to have in us, every moment of our lives: the facility to exalt life beyond the mundane, and into the meaningful; beyond the generic, and into the singular; through the abstract, and into the concrete; past the individual, and towards the universal. And it's when we reject this, the truest and worthiest gift of life, that we have squandered the fundamental significance of being human; that the soil of our lives feels arid, featureless, fallow, a desert that never came to life; because, in truth, it has been. And so this almost magical facility you and I have, potential, is something like an existential obligation that we must live up to: for it's only when we not just accept it, but employ it at its maximum, that we can reconcile ourselves not merely to regret, but with mortality; that we can escape not merely our own lesser selves, but the all-destroying scythe of futility; and come, finally, to find, at the end of the day, not merely time's revenge on life, but life's revenge on time: an abiding grace for both the fragility and the fullness of life.
I don't pretend any of the above is revolutionary, or new, or anything less than obvious. Yet, the lessons of a life well lived rarely are: they're simple, timeless truths.
So let me ask again. Why are you here? Do you want this to be another year that flies by, half-hearted, arid, rootless, barely remembered, dull with dim glimpses of what might have been? Or do you want this to be a year that you savor, for the rest of your surprisingly short time on Planet Earth, as the year you started, finally, irreversibly, uncompromisingly, to explosively unfurl a life that felt fully worth living?
The choice is yours. And it always has been.
Kategorien: Umair Haque